Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Rox Samer and Raffi Sarkissian (Part I)

Rox

In the bulk of my research, including my book manuscript, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, I write about participatory cultures of the past. If not networked in the same way cultures are today, I have found feminist media cultures of the 1970s to work not totally dissimilarly, the circulation of feminist film and video and the fanzines of feminist science fiction fandom connecting women of disparate locations and identities around a shared interest in particular genres or forms and/or women’s cultural production more broadly. Feminist film and video and feminist science fiction literature have largely been written about in disparate disciplines (cinema and media studies and literature) but from relatively synonymous perspectives that look to particular texts as contributions of authors (such as Barbara Hammer or Joanna Russ) that advance their theorizing of gender and sexuality at the height of lesbian feminism. In my interdisciplinary project, I instead turn to the cultures through which these films, videos, novels, and short stories circulated and the meaning made of them by disparate audiences. As a result, an alternative model for feminist historiography, one which frees us from feminist genealogical commitments to self-survival in favor of regeneration, emerges.

Drawing on correspondence, videos, records, and ephemera now located in the collections of feminist media workers, I explore how the distribution and exhibition of feminist film and video recrafted feminist relationality both between and among women located in the women’s movement’s metropolitan and college town hubs and those of suburban, rural, and imprisoned women’s communities. In 1975, feminist media workers gathered at two conferences—the Conference of Feminist Film and Video Organizations in New York City and the Feminist Eye Conference in Los Angeles—in order to begin building a feminist media network through which they might reduce excess labor in programming and distribution and generate ideas between feminist communities. At the New York conference they drafted and signed an “Ongoing Manifesto” (sometimes cited as a “Womanifesto”) in which they wrote, “We do not accept the existing power structure and we are committed to changing it by the content and structure of our images and by the ways we relate to each other in our work and with our audience.” They saw this politicized media practice as “part of the larger movement of women dedicated to changing society by struggling against oppression as it manifests itself in sexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, ageism, and imperialism.”[1] I offer a history of two projects emerged from these conferences with the goal of continuing this ongoing work of changing society by way of media and feminist media worker/audience relations: the National Women’s Film Circuit (NWFC, 1975-80), a distribution system that circulated preconstituted packages of multigeneric feminist films through as wide a non-theatrical feminist US market as possible, and International Videoletters (1975-77), a monthly exchange of documentary video between US feminist communities with international aspirations. As NWFC packages and International Videoletters traveled to not just New York City, LA, Tucson, Rochester, and dozens of other locations, they initiated a series of intimate intellectual exchanges between US feminist communities largely impossible through other forms of political organization. In watching feminist films and videos together, often pursuant to lively discussion, audiences participated in nothing less than the temporary construction of an alternative reality. For two hours at a time feminist spectators perceived differently together and were moved to think and feel more expansively. This labor of reception was done with those on the screen and those behind the screen image’s cameras (who, in the case of the videoletters, might the following month be the ones in the audience themselves). Both intellectual and embodied, this affectivity put what I term “lesbian potentiality” in movement. Individuals’ felt sense that society could someday be substantially different gained force and momentum through the virtual creation of such a world among and between local feminist communities.

I also study how, unable to find a home in either the broader feminist culture or fandom proper, feminist science fiction authors and their early readers created their own counterpublic: feminist science fiction (SF) fandom. I examine the unique form of feminist consciousness raising that materialized across and between the letters of comment, book reviews, and fan art that appeared in Khatru, The Witch and the Chameleon, and Janus fanzines of the 1970s and in the programming of the feminist SF convention WisCon (1977-present) before arguing feminist SF fandom’s openness to accountability and vulnerability when thinking through differences and its self-reflexive and citational sense of humor are responsible for the rare endurance of this 1970s feminist counterpublic. Across the early feminist fanzines and WisCon programming parody, irony, satire, and what I can only describe as profound silliness were used to illustrate key points, demonstrate acquiescence, and poke fun at one’s own feminist zealousness (or, as fandom included men, even one’s failed attempts at feminist allyship). After being chastised for handing his colleagues in a Khatru symposium on “Women and Science fiction” what Russ called “the Baboon Theory of Human Behavior,” James Tiptree, Jr. (who two years later would be outed as Alice B. Sheldon) took on the part of the deferring male, exclaiming, “I feel about as relevant as a cuckoo-clock in eternity.”[2]

Often jokes reference recent events in more mainstream fandom and/or the “mundane” world. Hank Luttrell’s review of Star Wars, published in Janus 9, declared itself the “last Star Wars review,” calling attention to the obscene amount of attention the film was receiving in both mainstream fandom and the culture at large. For Luttrell, Star Wars is but one entry a growing body of pulpy comic book SF films that actual bear greater resemblance to Westerns, which helps them “get away with a general lack of social or political meaning” as well as its “casual attitude toward scientific accuracy.”[3] And while Luttrell finds Princess Leia to be a “surprising departure from the movie-serial mold” in that she is smart and adept, he muses, “You can’t help but wonder why [otherwise] it was that only white, blue-eyed, male Flash Gordons ventured into space.”[4] Janus editor Jeanne Gomoll made a collage to accompany the review, in which the characters of the film echo the reviews’ sentiments. Obi Wan Kanobi is pictured saying, “But it’s so redundant!” Luke Skywalker declares, “I’m gonna be sick,” and Chewbacca perhaps putting it best, “Grrrrrrr!” On its own, this collage would hold little meaning. However, in the context of this review and from the perspective of those who share Luttrell’s reservations about the film, it offers a hilarious critique. While anti-feminist mainstream fandom and the sexist “mundane” world might be no fun—both of which loved Star Wars—that need not be the case, these feminist fans insisted, for their fan world.

Like most social movement historians, I write this history hoping it will be of use to younger generations. It hopefully gives a sense of the ongoing and enduring work of feminist participatory cultures. Just as today’s participatory cultures are far from homogenous and can often be a challenge to navigate, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s reveals that the politics of participatory cultures past were far from as simple themselves. The stakes of doing this work only grow as the speed of digital cultures accelerates. The internet thrives on the new. Every week we learn of a new “first” achievement or hear of an unprecedented atrocity being committed. It’s not that such achievements should not be celebrated, nor such atrocities critiqued and resisted, but the temporality of digital culture is so fast that it’s as if the clock of history is constantly being re-set. It’s for these reasons that I enjoy following Instagram accounts like @lesbianherstoryarchives, @onearchives, and @digitaltransarc (or as I recently learned about in SCMS presentations by Marika Cifor and China Medel, @theaidsmemorial and @veteranas_and_ rucas), which disrupt the constant present of my feed (#TBTs notwithstanding).

This persistent emphasis on newness risks escalating the generational divisions of queer feminist historiographies. This is one of the reasons I write about feminist SF fandom. It has managed to adapt over the years, its tradition of humor facilitating difficult discussions of difference oftentimes seemingly impossible in other spaces. In 2013, one of WisCon 37’s most popular panels was “Cousin of Return of Sibling of Revenge of Not Another F*cking Race Panel,” the annual iteration of a game show format panel, complete with a giant dice, in which six science fiction and fantasy authors of color got “their geek on about any number of pop culture topics—none of them related to race.”[5] The first of such panels was organized years before as a response to the experience of SF&F authors of color at WisCon, who found they were always expected to talk about race and race alone, a pattern that prevented them from interacting at the convention fully as people with additional experiences, passions, and interests related to the subjects at hand. There are many elements that factor into the longevity of feminist institutions, but, as Michfest has sorely demonstrated, intergenerational collaboration (or the lackthereof) is one of them. In Convergence Culture, Jenkins writes, “Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power.”[6] Such collective intelligence, I argue, should be generated not only within extant participatory cultures (including those, like feminist SF fandom, which are constantly regenerating) but between nonextant and current participatory cultures as well.

Raffi Sarkissian

It’s a funny thing. The more I work on researching the participatory cultures of LGBTQ activism, the more I find how integral humor, parody, and play are—and have been—in sustaining the civic and political engagement of these movements, their networks, and individual contributors. I am currently working on a manuscript, It Gets Popular: LGBTQ Video Activism in the Digital Age, in which I make a studied analysis of three particular cases of grassroots LGBTQ video activism that sprung up and spread in the late 2000s on YouTube an social media. Each of these cases—centered around California’s Proposition 8, the anti-gay “Gathering Storm” ad, and the It Gets Better Project—is actually a constellation of different grassroots campaigns, group organizing, and movement participation that cohere around their inciting objects of critique. Together these cases, I argue, present an important inflection point—in terms of representational, organizational, and institutional politics—for LGBT video activism in the emerging networked and digital era. What I’d like to tease out for this conversation is one of the threads that stood out in my research, analysis, and interviews conducted on these videos: a parody and play approach to their activism.

The memetic response to “A Gathering Storm,” a 2009 anti-gay marriage ad airing in a few states and posted online, illustrates such a move. The original ad, made by the National Organization for Marriage, features hired actors against a stormy green-screen backdrop, warning audiences that the advance of gay marriage will take away their rights and freedoms. The video engendered a swift response, inspiring not just widespread ridicule and condemnation online, but immediately annotated, remixed, and mashed-up renditions of the ad. These first reactions were individually edited, animated, or vlog-style videos, what we typically see in response to viral content. Within a few days, though, organized parody productions—written, assembled, and shot—also started appearing on YouTube as well (a couple sampled below).

What struck me about these group efforts in particular was the seeming simultaneity of their response and similarity to their approach. They all dove headfirst to reveal and revel in the campy excess of the original ad, zeroing in on its artifice (bad acting, bad special effects), transparent baiting (particularly around race and fear tactics), and an overall lack of self-awareness of the ad’s use of gay iconography. It was “low-hanging fruit” as one of my interviewees would describe. The creators and participants I talked to during my research also revealed the relative ease and speed with which they organized their parody productions. Common in their descriptions was an organic, spontaneous, and mostly DIY assembly: scripts developing over phone calls or single coffee sessions, getting a crew of friends together on short notice, editing and uploading it online ASAP.

The collaborative process described above, I argue, added an affective valence to these videos. What further emerged from my interviews was the intentional use of comedy and parody by the creators as a way to process and respond to the homophobic ad and its preposterous rhetoric. This kneejerk turn to comedy and satire called upon a legacy of humor and play in histories of LGBTQ activism. In my research on the various movements from the sixties and on, for instance, I came across the prevalent use of zaps as part of an artillery of tactics activists used in street spectacles and public demonstrations. Per Sara Warner,

The term refers to playful methods of social activism and mirthful modes of political performance that inspire and sustain deadly serious struggles for revolutionary change […] zaps combine physical comedy, symbolic costumes, expressive gestures, and farcical timing in brief, improvised skits that are designed to shock and awe people, jolting them out of their complacency and fixed frames of reference.[1]

Though the freedom to marriage on the surface does not seem as high-stakes, the participants recognize the violence in the arguments and strategies that animate many of these contemporary anti-gay campaigns. Their response through the organizing, production, and release of these videos online, then, operate as digital incarnations of zaps. They translate currencies of queer activism—camp humor and theatrical performance—to participate in the new economies of networked video activism.

This kind of grassroots video production was also on display in LGBT activism during the 2008 election when California had Proposition 8, a measure to ban same-sex marriage, on the ballot. Not all the independently-produced online video campaigns here incorporated comedy or a play on traditional campaign ads, but several did go the route of parody, like the Mac v. PC style “No on 8” ads, or satire (like the video below), preceding “A Gathering Storm” in negotiating the spreadable potential of video activism in the still emerging economies of networked publics.

A couple related impulses motivate my post here (and my research overall on digital video activism moving forward). First, paying more attention to the function that play and humor serve and the social effect they produce and provoke in political activism at large and participatory politics in the digital era in particular. One of the key questions I hope to explore further in this conversation and blog series is where we see this kind of work today, how it has evolved in the decade since Prop 8 and “A Gathering Storm.” The cases I cover telegraph something about a particular time and focus—by and about certain interests, priorities, communities—when it comes to both LGBTQ activism and the uses of digital platforms for political organizing. LGBTQ issues and representation mushroomed both in national politics and media industries since. What happens to the type of tactics detailed in this post within an environment of hypervisibility and profitability of (some) queer content today? I have some answers but I am hoping others join in the discussion and help broaden the picture.

The second impulse, shared among many media studies scholars, is the importance of taking stock and documenting these digital artifacts and their structures of feeling. I was drawn to these videos as the object of my scholarship because of the role they played in my engagement with LGBTQ organizing and activism during that time period. Yet, when I started my research on these videos and campaigns in earnest many years after they were first uploaded, I often had to rely on my own memory of the content, webpages, and online discourse to track some of them down. Given the rate at which we are producing content and the ease with which we move from one form or style to another, either as consumers or creators, it is imperative to analyze our political engagement with media, its historical antecedents, and the affective shape it takes today. This is then not just about preservation, but to better understand the context and emergence of these participatory moves—if not fully movements—to trace how they developed, evolved, and continue to inform the genres, practices, and politics of queer digital publics.

Rox Samer is an Assistant Professor of Screen Studies in Clark University’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts. Rox is currently working on a book manuscript, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, as well as a documentary film, Tip/Alli, on the work, life, and influence of feminist science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon, 1915-87).

Raffi Sarkissian is a lecturer in media studies at Christopher Newport University. He earned his PhD from the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. His research analyzes LGBTQ representation in popular culture and digital video activism, queer film festivals, and the politics of award shows. He has published articles in Spectator journal and an edited volume on Queer Youth Media Cultures.

Endnotes

[1] “An Ongoing Manifesto,” February 2, 1975, Box 15, Ariel Dougherty Papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Box 64, Joan E. Biren Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

[2] James Tiptree, Jr., “Women in Science Fiction: A Symposium,” Khatru 3 & 4, ed. Jeffrey D. Smith (November 1975), 101.

[3] Hank Luttrell, “The Last Star Wars Review,” Janus 9 (1977): 17-18.

[4] Luttrell, “The Last Star Wars Review,” 18.

[5] WisCon 37 Pocket Program Book, 55.

[6] Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York and London: NYU Press, 2006).