Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Alexander, revisited more productively

For me, the most effective critique of Alexander’s chat room experiment (beyond simply saying that there really wasn’t much digital in the chapter) was Shane’s, who, in class, if I’m remembering and attributing correctly, said the activity was something akin to identity tourism.  Seems to work for me; there’s simply no way that students who can put down their state of oppression at will can truly inhabit that marginalized position, online or no.  The critique got me thinking, and by briefly substituting labor for identity, I think I've found a better way to productively approach Alexander, both on the level of his politics and his engagement with digital media.

So while I’m back, workin' at the house-based sweat equity I'd mentioned a week ago (this time filling Boss Keane’s ditch rather than digging it), I wondered to what degree the sorry six hours I spend on my lot every weekend or so measured on Shane's ladder of the laboring tourist.  Is my labor false because I’m paying the guy who told me this was a job I could do for him?  That is, if I wanted to mail it in, I’d just pay him a few hundred more bucks to find a trencher and tell [ie, "pay"] one of his employees to follow it.  In the grand scheme of things, that's not a crudload of dough, right?  And I'd just be rolling those few hundred into the construction loan; it's not like I had to earn the money.  Ah, vive le privilège.

It seemed to me like there are give or take two ways to approach my labor (and this house jive seems to be heavy  on my mind largely because it's several hours that I don't have much to do with my mind but think).  On the one hand, I am a tourist.  The few hours I put in are nothing like someone putting in fifty hour weeks.  I'm working once or twice a week, and even then when something more important comes up I have an easy out if I want to use it (for the record, I haven't, yet).

On the other hand, the point of unalienating labor is to point out (in an oversimplified sense) what's wrong with the way labor is marshaled now.  I'm being more productive than I would be if I spent the time like I'd normally do -- running -- and perhaps there's an argument in here somewhere that those who do this sort of labor for their fifty hour weeks aren't being fairly compensated (meaning both salary and socially in a larger sense).  What the exercise, pun intended, does is expose the ways our (well, at least "my") relationship with labor can be improved.  (Yes, I realize I'm lazily leaving those lessons unnecessarily vague.  I'm not sure I understand all of them yet, thus the dimestore Marxist label.)

Extend to Alexander's experiment with his chat room class exercise.  If he'd twist the goal a bit (and, from our class' point of view, move from the emphasis on two specific sexualities to a broader social consideration), the chat room suddenly becomes much more interesting.  Instead of saying, "Hey, let's flip social dominance and see what it's like to be different... [cue music]", he instead can ask how the ability to negotiate identity in virtual space changes the way that identity can be enacted and controlled.  And here with Alexander's chat room, I'd, like Ruffin-digging, see two very different possibilities crop up.  Either the virtual identity eternally delays the requirement of "coming out" (what I'd call "owning") an identity by restricting its performance to a safe space (and here I'd include both primary sexual social performances and secondary, like those students that find they are suddenly comfortable with flaming) or it provides an alternative conception to retroactively apply to conventional space.  That is, outside of the "computer classroom," a couple of uses or lessons of the chat room present themselves.  One is for those with oppressed identity politics to limit the performance of their [natural/true/etc] identity for virtual tourist spots themselves.  The way the 'net enables such confrontation-avoidance/virtual closet space is an unavoidable lesson, much to Alexander's chagrin.

The second, more accepting lesson is to allow the exercise to not to flip positions and create a new hierarchy of privilege (Alexander's intended but potentially short-sighted goal), but to see what's wrong with the way identity is marshaled now.  Online, there does seem to be the possibility of conceiving identity differently, thanks to 1.) a perception of anonymity, which provides a previously unexperienced degree of identity control and 2.) Alexander's until now unrelated point of how easy it is in cyberspace to find information about what was conventionally easily suppressed, which provides a previously unexperienced potential for [shared] identity formation (I think Nick's reference proves this point fairly well).  In practice, the lesson is perhaps essentially libertarian, and doesn't completely fulfill Alexander's politics of liberation.  Regardless, this is a more productive reading of his experiment, and I believe it does a better job of moving towards the sort of [digital-dependent] lesson his chapter was attempting to display and provides better, more productive guidance for those who might want to use the exercise for their own classrooms.

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