Cultural Appropriation

Briahna Joy Gray has written an excellent article on cultural exploitation and uses the song Hound Dog as an example. She argues “It’s more helpful to think about exploitation and disrespect than to define cultural “ownership”…”

That brings us back to Elvis, Big Mama Thornton, and “Hound Dog.” The issue there isn’t that Elvis shouldn’t sing “Hound Dog.” It’s that when Elvis sang Hound Dog, it made him rich and he became “The King,” while when Thornton sang what is—let’s be honest—an objectively better version of the song, she didn’t become a world-famous megastar. Elvis’s early records, the ones that made his name, are filled with covers of songs by black artists (“That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “Milkcow Blues,” etc.), but the life stories of early 20th century black musicians are stories of poverty and exploitation by a predatory music industry that lifted their sounds and left them with nothing. The trouble isn’t that Elvis sang the songs but that he did so in a viciously racist economic landscape that didn’t reward black cultural innovation with black economic success. Using cultural “ownership” doesn’t help us here—after all, “Hound Dog” was written by white songwriters, albeit specifically for Thornton, who added her own improvisations. But it’s still obvious we’re dealing with a racially unequal music industry.

Americanisms: Is folks a term of resistance?

One of the fun (and frustrating) things about moving between countries and cultures is discovering that things are done differently than you have come to expect. This is particularly true of language. Some of it is local dialect – every time people in Philly say water (pronounced wuder, or wooder) I cant help but smile. Some of it is spelling (the famous aluminium or aluminum discussion) and some of it is just different words for similar things; do you say car boot or trunk? And in my house the biscuit/cookie & muffin/cupcake discussions can take epic proportions.

But there is one word that fascinates me and that is Folks. Originally I heard it being used by people of color, but once I recognized it I heard it being used by activists from many communities. Usually when I hear the work folk in english – I think of folk dancing:

Swedish Folk Dancing

 

As I am not big on folk dancing it doesn’t play an important part in my life. But a more possible reason the term seems unusual is that it is reasonably common in Swedish (same spelling). It refers to people but it also refers to race and, in part, to nation. This is understandable as its etymology is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary

Old English folc “common people, laity; men; people, nation, tribe; multitude; troop, army,” from Proto-Germanic *folkam (source also of Old Saxon folc, Old Frisian folk, Middle Dutch volc, Dutch volk, Old High German folc, German Volk “people”). Perhaps originally “host of warriors:” Compare Old Norse folk “people,” also “army, detachment;”

Its germanic roots and use in modern german is what makes it a bit jarring. The term Volk has strong connections for me with the Nazi race ideology where the focus on volk was key – and its definition included elements of race, geography, and culture. The idea of volk was used heavily in their propaganda. They spoke of herrenvolk = master race; and volksgemeinschaft = racial community. And so much more.

Naturally, the american use for the term doesn’t come from these roots, and as far as I can tell american nazis seem to favor race over volk/folk. The american use, as far as I can tell, is more connected with family, relatives, relations, and kinfolk (where are your folks from?) and is a word more used in casual conversation (think of sportscasters addressing the crowd -other terms would be too formal). Naturally it is also strongly connected to the rural world where folk music, folk art, and folk medicine stand in contrast with the urban experience.

Aside from its folksy roots and its casual usage, the word folk (with its vaguely unnecessary plural: folks) is being used among activists in settings that are not intended to be folksy or particularly causal. Here is a quote by Heather Cronk of Showing Up for Racial Justice from the transcript from Bitch Media’s episode A Guide to Trump Resistance

Not all white folks are experiencing this election in the same way. So I identify as queer. I come out of LGBTQ organizing. And for a lot of queer folks, especially a lot of trans folks, even if you’re white, especially if you’re queer and trans and poor, you’re experiencing this election and experiencing having these kinds of conversations with friends and family in different ways. So I would never say to folks you have to have this conversation. For a lot of folks, that isn’t safe for a whole lot of different reasons.

Here folk is a group that shares a common interest that may be defined by race/color, but could also be defined by gender/sexuality.

Its difficult to say that the word is being re-appropriated since the germanic volk seems not to have been a strong connotation in American English. But it does seem like the word is evolving to become a central term in activist circles which does make it a marker of resistance to traditional norms of white, cis gender power.

Teaching New Media & Activism this term

So the term has already started and teaching is on! Since I am fortunate enough to teach topics that excite me I am always energized by the beginning of term. This is good since it masks my stress at getting everything together in time before the first day of class. The latter is more of a goal than a reality but for the most part it seems to go pretty well.

This term I am teaching New Media Society and my activism course, Communication and Social Mobilization, the links are to the syllabi. Check them out and feel free to send me feedback as I am always trying to update my courses in almost every way.

Democracy & Protest

This semester I’m teaching one of my favorite courses on social movements! Teaching is always a tricky thing but it gets easier when what you say in the classroom can be connected with the world around the students. So teaching people about activism and social movements in the current political climate is going to be awesome!

Last weekend was the Women’s March which gathered huge amounts of people all over the world – even in Antartica! The main event was, naturally, in Washington but the sister marches were well attended. While the big marches are spectacular and easy enough to join I am always impressed by the smaller marches. You are very visible in a small march. Think about the town of Onley (Virginia) it has a population of 516 and still 50 people marched! Thats impressive!

Here are some pictures from the Philadelphia march

Donated signs for the oral history project

When introverts march…

March Like a Girl

Tweet Women as Equals


One of the goals of my course is to teach how a group of people with similar ideas form into a more permanent body and become a social movement. The Women’s March is an excellent example of how emotions like anger and concern can become a protest – and there is an ongoing discussion about what happens next. Will this become a movement?

Like I said – teaching is so much more interesting with relevant examples all around us.

Aldous Huxley on Technodictators

I like this – but I don’t believe that technology is neutral since it is created, embedded, and used in a setting.

“All technology is in itself morally neutral. These are just powers which can either be used well or ill, it’s the same thing with atomic energy. We can either use it to blow ourselves up, or we can use it as a substitute for the coal and the oil which are running out.” -Aldous Huxley

 

Enough to sate the social urge

Via Mark Carrigan

Online friendships afford a similar bounty: instantaneous, often hilarious adventures in debate, discussion, dialogue. The ties are strong enough to sate the social urge, but their gossamer threads never bind us tightly, rarely ask for the commitments and cohabitations of our closest relationships.

Damon Young “Distraction” pg 154

Erotic Canoe

This must be one of the best headlines ever This Japanese Artist Was Fined for Distributing Plans to 3-D–Print Replicas of Her Vagina. It gets better when the model Rokude Nashiko is distributing is a kayak.

So it seems like its not illegal in Japan to make a mould of your vagina and turn it into a canoe – it is however illegal to distribute the specs…

On 8 May 2016, the court handed down its decision. She was found not guilty of the charges related to the kayak, on the grounds that the sculpture, with its bright colour and decoration, “did not immediately suggest female anatomy”, in the words of the BBC report. However, she was found guilty of the charges related to the 3D data, and was fined 400 000 yen, about half what the prosecution had suggested was appropriate. Wikipedia

 

New Hate Speech & Propaganda Course

Next semester I shall be teaching a course that I find very fascinating and I hope will be very exciting. It’s going to be on Hate Speech & Propaganda (syllabus) and will cover a bunch of interesting areas.

The history of propaganda is fascinating and I would like to have expanded this area to include more but cuts had to be made somewhere. For this section I took inspiration from Jessica Nitschke‘s course “Power, Image, and Propaganda in the Ancient World and Philip Taylor’s book Munitions of the Mind.

There will be a section on the role of superhero’s in propaganda. Not only the ways in which caped crusaders have been used in war but also the ways in which they are used in peacetime to convey ideological messages. For this I recommend Marc DiPaolo‘s book War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. Naturally there will be a section on the role of wider culture in propaganda and the focus of this may vary depending on what is popular in the media at the time of the course.

Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter

Additionally the course will address the rise of marketing and its connections to propaganda. I wanted to show the fantastic Bernay’s documentary The Century of the Self but at over 4 hours this may have been a stretch for the students. Following this I want to look more closely at the marketing of unhealthy products and lifestyles. In this cigarettes are a given but so is the (minimally) less well know issues of tobacco and sugar. For this section I will be relying heavily on the excellent The Cigarette Century by Allan Brandt.

This will be followed by a look at language and propaganda (naturally Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language will be included) which should hopefully lead the course seamlessly into a discussion on free speech and then look into the areas of hate speech. There is a lot to chose from but the focus this time will be on the Danish Cartoons, Charlie Hebdo & Anti-Immigration. Followed by a look at holocaust denial, homophobia (and related topics) and the limits of hate speech.

The main book will be Jason Stanley‘s How Propaganda Works and I will be adding material to provide other perspectives and to cover hate speech. The syllabus is available and if you do have any comments feel free to contact me or comment.

Letter In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub

Came across this letter online and wanted to save it here for future reference.

In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub

In Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s tale the Little Prince meets a businessman who accumulates stars with the sole purpose of being able to buy more stars. The Little Prince is perplexed. He owns only a flower, which he waters every day. Three volcanoes, which he cleans every week. “It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them,” he says, “but you are of no use to the stars that you own”.

There are many businessmen who own knowledge today. Consider Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher, whose 37% profit margin1 stands in sharp contrast to the rising fees, expanding student loan debt and poverty-level wages for adjunct faculty. Elsevier owns some of the largest databases of academic material, which are licensed at prices so scandalously high that even Harvard, the richest university of the global north, has complained that it cannot afford them any longer. Robert Darnton, the past director of Harvard Library, says “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”2 For all the work supported by public money benefiting scholarly publishers, particularly the peer review that grounds their legitimacy, journal articles are priced such that they prohibit access to science to many academics – and all non-academics – across the world, and render it a token of privilege.3

Elsevier has recently filed a copyright infringement suit in New York against Science Hub and Library Genesis claiming millions of dollars in damages.4 This has come as a big blow, not just to the administrators of the websites but also to thousands of researchers around the world for whom these sites are the only viable source of academic materials. The social media, mailing lists and IRC channels have been filled with their distress messages, desperately seeking articles and publications.

Even as the New York District Court was delivering its injunction, news came of the entire editorial board of highly-esteemed journal Lingua handing in their collective resignation, citing as their reason the refusal by Elsevier to go open access and give up on the high fees it charges to authors and their academic institutions. As we write these lines, a petition is doing the rounds demanding that Taylor & Francis doesn’t shut down Ashgate5, a formerly independent humanities publisher that it acquired earlier in 2015. It is threatened to go the way of other small publishers that are being rolled over by the growing monopoly and concentration in the publishing market. These are just some of the signs that the system is broken. It devalues us, authors, editors and readers alike. It parasites on our labor, it thwarts our service to the public, it denies us access6.

We have the means and methods to make knowledge accessible to everyone, with no economic barrier to access and at a much lower cost to society. But closed access’s monopoly over academic publishing, its spectacular profits and its central role in the allocation of academic prestige trump the public interest. Commercial publishers effectively impede open access, criminalize us, prosecute our heroes and heroines, and destroy our libraries, again and again. Before Science Hub and Library Genesis there was Library.nu or Gigapedia; before Gigapedia there was textz.com; before textz.com there was little; and before there was little there was nothing. That’s what they want: to reduce most of us back to nothing. And they have the full support of the courts and law to do exactly that.7

In Elsevier’s case against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, the judge said: “simply making copyrighted content available for free via a foreign website, disserves the public interest”8. Alexandra Elbakyan’s original plea put the stakes much higher: “If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge.”

We demonstrate daily, and on a massive scale, that the system is broken. We share our writing secretly behind the backs of our publishers, circumvent paywalls to access articles and publications, digitize and upload books to libraries. This is the other side of 37% profit margins: our knowledge commons grows in the fault lines of a broken system. We are all custodians of knowledge, custodians of the same infrastructures that we depend on for producing knowledge, custodians of our fertile but fragile commons. To be a custodian is, de facto, to download, to share, to read, to write, to review, to edit, to digitize, to archive, to maintain libraries, to make them accessible. It is to be of use to, not to make property of, our knowledge commons.

More than seven years ago Aaron Swartz, who spared no risk in standing up for what we here urge you to stand up for too, wrote: “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?”9

We find ourselves at a decisive moment. This is the time to recognize that the very existence of our massive knowledge commons is an act of collective civil disobedience. It is the time to emerge from hiding and put our names behind this act of resistance. You may feel isolated, but there are many of us. The anger, desperation and fear of losing our library infrastructures, voiced across the internet, tell us that. This is the time for us custodians, being dogs, humans or cyborgs, with our names, nicknames and pseudonyms, to raise our voices.

30 November 2015

Dušan Barok, Josephine Berry, Bodó Balázs, Sean Dockray, Kenneth Goldsmith, Anthony Iles, Lawrence Liang, Sebastian Lütgert, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Marcell Mars, spideralex, Tomislav Medak, Dubravka Sekulić, Femke Snelting…


  1. Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon. “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era.” PLoS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127502. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127502.,
    The Obscene Profits of Commercial Scholarly Publishers.” svpow.com. Accessed November 30, 2015.  
  2. Sample, Ian. “Harvard University Says It Can’t Afford Journal Publishers’ Prices.” The Guardian, April 24, 2012, sec. Science. theguardian.com.  
  3. Academic Paywalls Mean Publish and Perish – Al Jazeera English.” Accessed November 30, 2015. aljazeera.com.  
  4. Sci-Hub Tears Down Academia’s ‘Illegal’ Copyright Paywalls.” TorrentFreak. Accessed November 30, 2015. torrentfreak.com.  
  5. Save Ashgate Publishing.” Change.org. Accessed November 30, 2015. change.org.  
  6. The Cost of Knowledge.” Accessed November 30, 2015. thecostofknowledge.com.  
  7. In fact, with the TPP and TTIP being rushed through the legislative process, no domain registrar, ISP provider, host or human rights organization will be able to prevent copyright industries and courts from criminalizing and shutting down websites “expeditiously”.  
  8. Court Orders Shutdown of Libgen, Bookfi and Sci-Hub.” TorrentFreak. Accessed November 30, 2015. torrentfreak.com.  
  9. Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” Internet Archive. Accessed November 30, 2015. archive.org.