Earth Day and the Beauty We Love

Earth Day and the Beauty We Love

by Sam Mickey

Beginning with photographs taken in the 1940s, space exploration made possible numerous pictures of Earth taken from outside of the planet’s atmosphere, of which one of the most famous is the 1968 photograph of Earth taken from the moon, “Earthrise.” Seen from the vantage point of the moon, Earth puts humankind in context, conveying a sense of the unity of the Earth community. There are many important differences that distinguish humans from one another and from the more-than-human inhabitants and habitats of Earth. Yet, as pictures of the whole Earth indicate, those differences take place in one planetary context. No matter how different we are, whether human or nonhuman, we are earthlings. Common ground for cultural interactions and political negotiations is right here in our literally common ground, our singular homeland—Earth.

At around the same time that pictures of Earth began circulating widely, a science of the whole Earth began to emerge—Gaia theory, more commonly known today as Earth systems science. There is much to celebrate about this increasingly clear view of Earth, but any such celebration comes with a poignant irony. At the same time scientists were becoming aware of the evolutionary and ecological dynamics of Earth, they were becoming increasingly aware that the life, land, air, and water of Earth are in critical condition due to the rapacious growth of industrial societies fueled by ancient lifeforms fossilized in coal, oil, and natural gas. Celebrations of our planetary home must reckon with grief and mourning for all that has been lost, and they must face the challenge of protecting and regenerating all that remains. That was the impetus for the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, which continues to be celebrated worldwide every year on April 22.

Earth Day garners more participation than any other secular holiday. It is a day for joyous attention to the wonders of the planet, and it is also a day for personal and political transformation. This is not to say that Earth Day has been a miraculous success in slowing the pace of environmental destruction. 51 years since its inception, Earth Day has not solved the global ecological crisis. However, that is not its purpose. It is not supposed to solve the existential threat of ecological collapse. It is a reminder that the solutions we need are right under our feet, in our common ground. Solutions do not come from a holiday celebrated once a year. They come from communities connecting with their place on the planet. There are many ways of cultivating those connections, many ways of thinking, feeling, and acting in service of our common home, many ways of preserving the resplendent beauty of the living Earth community. Consider the words of the 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi. “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”1

1 Maulana Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi, The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition, translated by Coleman Barks (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 36.

Sam Mickey, PhD, is an Adjunct Professor in the Theology and Religious Studies department and the Environmental Studies program at the University of San Francisco. He has worked for several years at the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. His teaching, writing, and research are oriented around the ethics and ontologies of nonhumans, and the intersection of religious, scientific, and philosophical perspectives on human-Earth relations. He is an author of several books, including Whole Earth Thinking and Planetary Coexistence (2015), Coexistentialism and the Unbearable Intimacy of Ecological Emergency (2016), and On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization: A Philosophy of Integral Ecology (2014). He is co-editor (with Sean Kelly and Adam Robbert) of The Variety of Integral Ecologies: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era (2017). He is also co-editor of Living Earth Community: Multiple Ways of Being and Knowing, an open access title available to read and download for free here.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Celebrate a Decade of Knowledge Sharing with Sci-Hub Alexandra Elbakyan

Interview by Hoçâ Cové-Mbede

In March 2021 London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit issued a warning towards students and universities to stop visiting Sci-Hub, the first website in the world to provide mass and public access to millions of research papers, a project designed, programmed and maintained by Alexandra Elbakyan since 2011.

The press statement displays terms and compounds such as malicious, phishing, compromised access, cybercrime, bad actors, fraud and hacking in order to build a specific profile that speculates around the active use of the site. The move is not surprising or impressive for Sci-Hub’s standards, since its rise as one of the most important sources/archives for scientific research globally, Elbakyan has been dealing with constant turmoil: suspensions from social media platforms, permanent blocks, takedown orders, legal prosecution for copyright infringement, spying accusations, censorship and media backlash.

But not all sides are hostile in advance, the scrutiny and feedback taken from public and private conversations about the apparatuses that paywall database-knowledge for profit also devised a reputation for Elbakyan during all these years, cementing her as an unparalleled figure to talk about digital + bypass redistribution (aka the Robin Hood of Science Publishing), and not only that, Sci-Hub’s way to operate and interact puts interesting question marks on the limits of online ownership and the involvement of academic institutions regarding open access.

2021 will bring backward-looking moments for Sci-Hub, in September S-H will celebrate a decade of existence, which hopefully will open reviews about the impact of the uninterrupted service the site provides, analysis on the media-portraits made of Elbakyan by third actors in the public sphere, and our role in the current corporate model of production/access of scientific knowledge.

In June of 2020 I contacted Alexandra to have an extended conversation that covers S-H’s revolution in science, copy + paste archival practices in favour of copyright abolition, US Justice Department targeting S-H as an undercover espionage-project, private ownership of science, prejudices against women in IT, astrology and its nexus with information flow and Elsevier’s attempts to worldwide-block S-H.

This conversation previously appeared in a shorter version on Netzpolitik.org.

Hoçâ Cové-Mbede: Multiple profiles depict you with specific associations and comparisons with other projects or personas historically and culturally related with online piracy in the USA—from Piratebay, Megaupload and Napster to Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. What are your thoughts on how the media covers Sci-Hub? I’m thinking in particular of an article in Nature from 2016 and a profile published in The Verge in 2018, both of which get cited regularly in relation to Sci-Hub.

Alexandra Elbakyan: In my opinion, Sci-Hub’s media coverage was very little, unfair and biased. I would even say that discussion of Sci-Hub was censored in the media. Sci-Hub is a real revolution in science comparable to CRISPR but the media prefer to keep silent about it.

Sci-Hub started in 2011 and from the very beginning was recognized as a revolutionary Open Science project and gained huge popularity among researchers. But only in 2016 did articles about Sci-Hub in the media start to appear. That censorship is perhaps the result of the general perception of Sci-Hub as a Russian project opposed to the US.

I would say that the discussion of Sci-Hub in the journal Nature is very small compared to its real impact. In particular, Nature published very detailed descriptions of such open science projects as Unpaywall with pictures. The Unpaywall project is tiny compared to Sci-Hub, but Nature published only very short pieces about Sci-Hub, without pictures. So some readers of Nature journal who do not know much about the topic will have the wrong impression that Unpaywall is much bigger than Sci-Hub, because Nature has described it in detail while discussion of Sci-Hub was little. But in reality, the opposite is true: Unpaywall is tiny compared to Sci-Hub. If Nature was unbiased to Sci-Hub it would have put Sci-Hub on its cover picture in 2016.

You’re correct that even those articles about Sci-Hub that appeared in the media are focused not on the project itself but on comparisons, trying to belittle Sci-Hub and present it as secondary, while in reality it is revolutionary and unique. In the Verge article, journalists have presented a skewed picture of my conflict with the Russian science fund “Dynasty”, supporting Dynasty. They did not even bother to ask me about the information they collect so I could comment on it!

Wrong information appears not just in the media, but in more reputable sources also, for example, books, such as “Shadow Libraries” published by MIT and in dissertations. I read some of them and there were serious mistakes in my biography and the description of how Sci-Hub works. Again, authors of these works did not even bother contacting me.

However in Russian media the current state of affairs is much worse. An extremely unfair picture of me is being promoted; good facts about Sci-Hub are not published. I am being presented as a person who blocked access to academic literature while the reality is opposite. I opened access and not blocked it.  Also, usually journalists attach to their articles the most horrendous photo of me they can find, instead of asking me to send them a good photo. I guess that some of the bad media publications about me and Sci-Hub could be directly paid by Elsevier.

There’s a current pattern of legal tactics that label common words or compounds employed in open knowledge activities as criminal-by-association in regards to free access and text-private-property. Why do you think these legal tactics under the argument of capitalist loss have been used to try to slow down sharing networks and archival repositories? 

There is a huge industry around science publishing and copyright law in general, and they have enough money and power to support the status quo.

Do you think the measures against you, like the legal prosecution directed by Elsevier to cease Sci-Hub in 2015, are similar to Middle Age’s curses intended to protect against the theft of books?

Alexandra Elbakyan: In the Middle Ages books were copied by hand and it was a very tedious task and books were precious. So to protect books from stealing, a popular method was to insert a curse in the beginning or the end of the book, so that somebody who would steal that book will be cursed and go to Hell or get an illness or something else very bad will happen to them. Because Elsevier and other publishers also insist that their books and articles are being stolen by such websites as Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, I thought that is quite funny if they would also try using curses to protect their articles and books. Perhaps that will be a better method than suing us for copyright?

Images by Hoçâ Cové-Mbede.

It is fascinating how the tense relationship between the USA and Russia during the Cold War plays an important precedent in the public eye to generate plots and theories about the origins and intentions of Sci-Hub on copyrighted territories, even though you repeatedly insisted that Sci-Hub is a project you started in 2011. These theories suggest a plethoric range of possibilities, from a fully state funded project by Russian Intelligence, to an ongoing investigation directed by the US Justice Department that targets Sci-Hub as an undercover espionage-project. What is your response to these accusations and what is behind the constant emergence of conspiracy plots toward Sci-Hub?

Alexandra Elbakyan: First of all, these suspicions are understandable: Sci-Hub is an openly communistic project, coming from the former USSR or Russia, with a picture of Lenin pinned on its twitter page. I studied information security at the university, supported Putin politics and Sci-Hub uses supposedly hacked credentials to log in into university systems. All these facts taken together create a classical picture of some Russian intelligence. Also US authorities could suspect that Sci-Hub is an attempt to influence US researchers by the Russian government.

And the second reason for conspiracies is that Sci-Hub is a very cool and advanced project. So many people think: how could an Armenian woman coming from Kazakhstan create this herself? There should be a team of developers behind her face and so on. We still have a lot of prejudices against women, especially young—still many people think that women cannot code or do some serious work in IT—prejudices against race and countries. Just think of the Borat movie about Kazakhstan! After watching this movie, who can believe that something great such as Sci-Hub—and many people consider it great—can come from Kazakhstan? And so on. The funniest thing here is perhaps that because of all that, who will consider me for any great job at all? Hence all I can work on is a project that is illegal in all countries. But even then that work will not be considered mine. It is necessary to note that these prejudices were much stronger a few years ago, when Sci-Hub started, now they are becoming weaker.

In 2016 Marcia Mcnutt (former president of the National Academy of Sciences) wrote a column for Science Magazine titled My love-hate of Sci-Hub in which she argues that downloading papers from Sci-Hub could create collateral damage for authors, publishing houses, universities, fellowships, science education, among other areas. The love-hate scenario Mcnutt paints is nonetheless confusing for the debate she wants to open about corporate knowledge inside institutions, since the whole text leaves serious cracks in her depiction of the publishing system’s function. Accidentally in the same text, she evidences a chain of normalized exploitation towards researchers in her community—by not rewarding them. To use her own words “Journals have real costs, even though they don’t pay authors or reviewers, as they help ensure accuracy, consistency, and clarity in scientific communication.” If access means power and power is fueled by elevated amounts of money, what are the standards of politically correct access to information aiming for, if not capital accumulation?

Of course Sci-Hub creates damage: damage to the status quo, because old ways of doing things die and a new reality is born—what is perceived as damage to old ways is just transformation and change.

In her article Marcia McNutt says: “Authors do not benefit from download statistics, for example, which are increasingly being used to assess the impact of their work.” That does not seem to be a strong objection to me. After all, the real impact is when some work is cited, not just downloaded? I download many papers for later reading, for example. You can download and read some paper because it has a catchy title, but it will turn out to be useless for your work.

Sci-Hub collects download statistics, although they are not public, but all download statistics have been recorded since 2011 and I have a plan to add the number of views each paper has in the future. So Sci-Hub can be updated to provide such information.

The article goes on… “Libraries cannot properly track usage for the journals they provide and could wind up discontinuing titles that are useful to their institution. As institutions cancel subscriptions, the ability of non-profit scientific societies to provide journals and support their research communities is diminished.” In my opinion, it is very good when institutions cancel subscriptions, because we need to get rid of that outdated subscription model that operates by blocking access to knowledge for everyone who has not paid for a subscription. I don’t see it as damage but as a good thing.

The argument continues that journals have real costs. My response is that the prices currently charged for subscriptions are not used to cover the costs but simply to increase the profits. An example to illustrate this is that papers published in the 2010s and earlier are paywalled. Why? There is no reason—these papers have been published more than 10 years ago. Haven’t the costs of publishing them been covered already? They could be free, but they are being kept with closed access only to extract more profits.

Sci-Hub’s borderless pirate distribution is generating not only scientific capital but also cultural capital, in an availability of knowledge never experienced before. Language barriers aside, the capacities for scientific development in countries with research shortages may have significant growth in the next ten years thanks to Theft Trade Communication.

In a presentation you made this year about the mythology of science titled The Open Science Idea you made an unexpected statement: modern science grew out of theft. What is the nexus between cognition, communism, and theft inside your studies about the cultural history of science?

Since about 2010 I have had astrology as a hobby (yes, I know that is considered to be pseudoscience) and in modern astrology, there is planet Mercury that is responsible for all communication and information flow. That is because Mercury is an ancient god of language and speech, trade, travel, and theft. I thought that corresponds very well with Sci-Hub’s mission  and the common idea behind all these different activities is the idea of communication. We can find similar gods in other cultures and they are also gods of knowledge, and the god Mercury later developed as god of alchemy, astrology or the earliest forms of science. What we can see here is that science from its inception was connected to communication or to the idea of making something common. Hence private ownership of science by corporations is contradictory to science itself.

Is also worth noticing the high contrast amid the graphic assertions from Elsevier and Sci-Hub and what each one represents and stands for in regard to power and information. I’ve always wondered about Sci-Hub’s logo genesis, because in this case the graphisms go beyond the symbolic.

Alexandra Elbakyan: The history of Sci-Hub logo is less intriguing than it appears to be. When Sci-Hub started in 2011, its first logo was a simple Soviet hammer and sickle, and when the mouse pointer hovered upon it, a text showed up stating: “Communism is … common ownership of the means of production with free access to articles of consumption.”

I took this communism definition from a Wikipedia page and it fitted Sci-Hub very neatly. I was lucky because that definition of communism in Wikipedia was only in 2011—if you check earlier versions of Wiki articles about communism or later versions, they do not contain anything about “free access to articles.”

In 2014 I created a group in a social network to bring together Sci-Hub users (vk.com/sci_hub). First I used the Mendeleev table as a logo, after that it was an alchemical serpent. Later I decided to look up some pictures in Google with a key and books to use as a group logo, and found Raven sitting on books, holding a key. I loved that picture and immediately put it up as a logo on Sci-Hub’s social network group. Later in 2015, I decided to re-design Sci-Hub website and create a more current design, and used the group raven logo as a website logo.

Now that you discovered attractive routes to study information patterns and similarities through history, What do you think about the future of file-sharing consumption under severe .net regulations?

It is quite hard to predict the future, but I hope everything will be OK with Sci-Hub and it will have millions of daily visitors, not just half a million, and be recognized as a legal project.

We are in the middle of important changes at institutional, corporate and cultural levels in the context of Open Science and information access. In June of 2020 MIT ended negotiations with Elsevier for a new contract, and recently the University of California also renewed negotiations launching open access resolutions with the company. At the same time, many universities are inaugurating new protocols and initiatives to ensure wide and free access for academic resources. Do you consider the recent measures taken by academic organizations to be enough to abolish the paywall-economy?

As we can see paywalls are still there, and Sci-Hub is getting a lot of traffic. It could help if all—or most—science organizations stopped support of the paywall system, not just MIT and the University of California.

In May 2020 you were nominated for the John Maddox Prize by Fergus Kane after almost ten years of navigating heavily corporate waters. One curious detail about the award is that it has support from the international scientific journal Nature, Nature’s news team covered Sci-Hub’s legal battle in New York courts unfavorably. What is your approach to this nomination and how significant could it be for Sci-Hub’s potential?

I have seen many times in social networks how people say that I should get a Nobel Prize for Sci-Hub! So I expect a Nobel Prize, not just John Maddox, but of course the prize condition of Sci-Hub is just as unfair as its media condition. Sci-Hub has existed for 9 years so far, praised—and sometimes worshipped—by researchers all around the world: many people say that without Sci-Hub they would barely be able to do science, the project is extremely popular and considered to be revolutionary and… in the nine years of its existence it never got a single prize! That John Maddox nomination is a small step towards justice.

Can you elaborate the statement you made about Elon Musk’s Neuralink similarities with your Global Brain project developed back in 2010?

I’ve written a lot about neural chips in my blog and participated in conferences on that topic. Now Elon Musk is working on exactly the same things I wanted to work on and talked about 10 years ago. But there is not as much work as there is publicity: nothing is done yet, but everyone all over the world knows about that Neuralink—so when you talk about brain chips or brain-machine interfaces, people will immediately think that you’re somehow copy-cating Elon Musk, right? In fact, that topic of brain chips is quite old, attempts to develop and discuss something similar were made back in 2003 and earlier, it all started way before Elon Musk, but the advertisement works in such a way that most people think that is Elon Musk’s Neuralink.

A similar thing happened with Aaron Swartz. His name became so strongly associated with that “free science papers” topic that when people finally learned about Sci-Hub it was perceived as nothing but a shadow copy of Aaron Swartz work, while in reality Sci-Hub started and became popular before Aaron Swartz’s case.

Sci-Hub was a unique and extremely revolutionary project, but it became perceived as a shadow copycat just because it was given publicity only after the name of another person has been associated with the idea of freeing science by stealing research papers. In the beginning, it really felt as if Sci-Hub was working hard to free itself from that “copycat“ image. And I wonder whether something similar is being done with Neuralink. Elon Musk is very unappreciative of communism, as we can see from his twitter. So, I wonder if Sci-Hub was somehow the reason behind Elon Musk’s Neuralink.

What is your opinion about Elsevier’s Scholarly Networks Security Initiative (SNSI) founded together with other large publishers that proposes an analysis engine with biometric data and conspicuous usage patterns spyware, to prevent “cyber-attacks targeting institutions” and even hosting a presentation titled “The threat presented by Sci-Hub and other state-sponsored or individual bad actors”?

Actually I don’t know much about that surveillance scandal, I myself learned from Twitter about their plans, some people posted a link to that Times Higher Education article, I wanted to read it but it was not available in full—I had to register in their website. I did that, read the article and then re-posted it in Sci-Hub’s twitter. A well-known Open Access advocate Björn Brembs, who was mentioned in that article, has more on this topic in his twitter. I do not know him, but he often shares opinions in support of Sci-Hub.

You mentioned before that since 2010 you study astrology/modern astrology as a hobby. I would like to ask you to do a prediction about Sci-Hub (or Elsevier).

Ha! You’re the first journalist to ask such questions. Most questions are just duplicates: they ask how Sci-Hub works, why the science must be open, and what I’m going to do next. I cannot give a prediction for Elsevier, because for astrology, you need to know precisely, in minutes, time and place of birth—or, for websites and companies, time and place where they launched first. I can do it for Sci-Hub only. I actually looked into the Sci-Hub natal chart only in September 2017, when my friend’s ex-boyfriend, interested in astrology, contacted me and asked about Sci-Hub.

Sci-Hub has Mars in Cancer in its 10th house. What does that mean? 10th house (out of 12) is the middle of heavens. Mars is a god of war and god of heroes, so perhaps that’s why Sci-Hub is fighting the system. Usually Mars in Cancer is considered to be bad for Mars, because, as I read in one astrology source, Mars is a planet of energy, and inside Cancer that energy is hitting the shell and gets blocked, so the person’s energy is blocked, until sometimes that shell explodes. I thought that is a good metaphor of what Sci-Hub does: that is the service to breaking walls or shells where Science is currently incarcerated. On the other side, that is destiny: Sci-Hub gets blocked everywhere. You can also make a rough prediction, that since Mars is in Cancer, Mars is in a weak position, that usually signifies losers, or people who prefer to sit at home with their mother (Cancer is home/mother sign) than go fighting, because they think that will be smarter. Partially, that description fits Sci-Hub: so far it lost in all courts, because it was never participating—and that is a actually a smart thing to do, because fighting against such a huge corporation as Elsevier, with current law on their side, would obviously make no sense. But in astrology, as well as human life, is more complicated than just win or lose.

To compare, I have Mars in first degree. Aries (the strongest position that Aries can be) in 3rd house. The 3rd house in the human horoscope represents communication, studying and information—people often say that I’m too aggressive when communicating. Another feature I noticed in Sci-Hub’s horoscope is Neptune in the 6th house. That house represents work (not career) and Neptune is the planet of confusion (Neptune in astrology is opposed to Mercury, planet of rational knowledge). I noticed that no matter how much I explain how Sci-Hub works, still after several years people are very confused about it.

There is the 12th house in the human horoscope that represents death and life outcomes, Sci-Hub has the Sun and Venus here, they both bring luck and good fortune. So I hope the outcome of Sci-Hub will be better!

In September of 2020 the http://sci-hub.tw domain was blocked under a Website Infringement Complaints lawsuit by Elsevier using legal representation from Beijing. Can you explain the reasons behind this worldwide block and the suspicious follow-up appearance of fake look-alike Sci-Hub domains?

I have doubts about the real reason for the Elsevier lawsuit. Why? Well, I bought the .tw domain a few years ago from one Russian Internet company and since then, sci-hub.tw was never blocked, while other domains (Sci-Hub had a lot of them) did not live long, a couple of months or so. But the .tw domain was miraculously resilient to this. I was thinking, perhaps Chinese government (back then I did not know about the conflict between mainland China and Taiwan) was silently supporting Sci-Hub because of communist ideas?… What prevented Elsevier from seizing the .tw domain, just like they did with all other domains? (Another resilient domain is .se but Pirate Party in Sweden is backing it up).

When sci-hub.tw suddenly got blocked in September, I contacted that Russian company asking them what happened, because I had no letters from the domain registrar in my mailbox that are usually sent before the domain gets blocked. They took a long pause and then responded that they had asked the company where the .tw domain was registered, but they were silent and did not reply. I asked whether I can ask them myself, and they gave me an email. I sent a letter on 29 September, but then already I felt something was not clear here. The company responded the next day, very shortly, ‘we have sent you the document, please check, thanks’ I asked whether they could send me the document again because I received nothing! After 10 days, they finally responded with a document, explaining that there was a lawsuit filed by Elsevier (I posted that on Sci-Hub Twitter).

Then it popped up. sci-hub.tw was a very popular domain, it popped up first in Google search results, 45% of Sci-Hub users were coming from Google and other search engines (now percentage of search traffic is only 22%) but after it got blocked, it disappeared and instead, some suspicious ‘Sci-Hub’ websites started to appear first in Google (I also posted about that on Twitter)

By suspicious ‘Sci-Hub’ websites I mean scihub.wikicn.top, sci-hub.tf, sci-hub.ren, sci-hub.shop, and sci-hub.scihubtw.tw. These websites are actually the same, and they worked as a proxy to Sci-Hub, so they receive request from the users, redirect it to real Sci-Hub website (using some non-blocked Sci-Hub address) and give user the response, hiding/masking the address of real Sci-Hub. Actually, such websites can, in theory, have good goals, just to unblock Sci-Hub in those places where access to real Sci-Hub is blocked, for example, scihub.unblockit.top or scihub.unblockit.lat work the same way – but we can easily see these as generic services to unblock various blocked websites.

In the case of the websites mentioned above, the first time I encountered this was when one of the Sci-Hub domains was blocked in Russia. In such cases I usually add a new Sci-Hub domain for Russian users to work. After .se was blocked in Russia back in 2019, I quickly added sci-hub.st (if I remember correctly) as a replacement but then I noticed, that surprisingly, instead of this new domain published by me, people promoted some ‘sci-hub.ltd’ website. I opened it and it worked as a proxy, and I really did not like that, also because .ltd domain means ‘limited’ and Sci-Hub should not be limited. I found their IP address and configured Sci-Hub, so that when Sci-Hub is accessed though sci-hub.ltd proxy, it shows the REAL Sci-Hub addresses that people can use instead.

After I did that, the sci-hub.ltd author contacted me, and instead of providing some good reason for his .ltd website, such as “we want to provide access to Sci-Hub where real addresses are blocked” mumbled something about promoting Sci-Hub through this domain!

Then coronavirus happened and I forgot about this, but this September it all resurfaced as a replacement for the .tw website worldwide. These websites are adding advertisements while real Sci-Hub has no advertisements. They use suspicious domains such as ‘shop’ or ‘tf’ which reads as ‘thief’. Just like previously, I replaced their content with real Sci-Hub addresses (.st .se and .do) and they were aggressively fighting it! They tried using multiple proxies to hide their IP, they were desperately replacing and removing real Sci-Hub addresses from my message, they changed my email (!) on my About page (sci-hub.do/alexandra) to some another email registered at 163.com, and later they removed link to my page completely. If they had good intentions, just to unblock Sci-Hub, they could SIMPLY provide real Sci-Hub addresses in the left menu, with an explanation that they are only a proxy to help people when Sci-Hub is inaccessible by real addresses. They did nothing, instead they started to redirect to some Sci-Hub database mirror instead, and for new articles they put a completely fake “proxy search” page, while in fact it does not search anything, is just an imitation of the real Sci-Hub.

I really suspect that these websites are kind of man-in-the-middle attack from publishers (or somebody else!), who are providing fake Sci-Hub websites instead of the real one, to manipulate or control Sci-Hub’s image. But they could not do this with the.tw domain live, they needed to block it in order to replace Sci-Hub with their fake Sci-Hub they can control. This happened soon after I posted “About me” information on Sci-Hub for everyone to read. See? Somebody might want to prevent such information from being posted, so they need a controlled Sci-Hub, so there will be no “About me” or “about Sci-Hub” pages that can provide true facts about Sci-Hub. Media is controlled, but I could post my story on Sci-Hub, and everyone respects Sci-Hub… they want to block this opportunity. Additionally, simple advertisements already create a negative impression of Sci-Hub as some shady website, while real Sci-Hub does not rely on advertisements.

Co-edited by Serafin Dinges.

Hoçâ Cové-Mbede is a writer, graphic designer and cultural vector, who focuses on interviews-as-templates to explore topics fueled by Silicon Valley criticism, guerilla media, surveillance aesthetics and technology + information. C-M’s work has been featured on platforms such as the Institute of Network CulturesThe Wrong BiennaleTTT in Art & Science, The Quietus and Metal Magazine.

Alexandra Elbakyan is a web developer and a researcher focused in neuro and cognitive sciences, Open Access/Science and theories of knowledge, with a bachelor degree in Computer Technology and master’s degree in Linguistics from the Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia. Elbakyan is the founder of Sci-Hub, the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to millions research papers.

 

Broadcast Kidnapping: How the Rise of the Radio led to the Fall of a Jean-Claude Duvalier

Haitian Radio //
Radyo Ayisyen

Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.

Last week, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights.  This week, Jennifer Garcon shows how the long marriage between Haitian politics and Haitian radio has endured, despite multiple and conflicting alliances, high drama, and attacks from all sides. The powerful and the powerless have even in their enmity presumed that if they could harness radio’s power they would ascend to political power. Her story recounts one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life. Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman

Click here for the full series!

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On January 23, 1973, Jean-Claude Duvalier, only 18 months into his life-long appointment, received a call that threatened to profoundly destabilize his nascent presidency. On the other end was Clinton E. Knox, a close political ally and advisor, who also happened to be the US Ambassador to Haiti. Knox, Jean-Claude was informed, along with US consul general Ward Christensen were being held hostage at a residence just outside of Port-au-Prince. To secure the safe return of two high-ranking US officials, the captors demanded the release of political prisoners, a hefty ransom, and a plane to facilitate their escape. The kidnappers “meant business,” reported The Washington Post, Times Herald on Jan 26, 1973, and during the call, Knox warned Jean-Claude of the severity of the situation, that they ”threatened to blow my head off, if they didn’t get what they wanted.”

Jean-Claude Duvalier
Jean-Claude Duvalier, by Flickr user jsstokes10

Just hours before, Knox, boasting of Haiti’s improved political situation, told a Miami Herald reporter that, “everything [was] calm.” Since Francois Duvalier’s death in 1971, the new president had been aggressively courting international aid. In a marked departure from his father’s political rhetoric, Jean-Claude openly declared his intention to lessen authoritarian conditions in Haiti. He called for the organization of new political parties and the reestablishment of a “freer” press. Thanks to Knox, millions in international and humanitarian aid–previously suspended because of Francois’s long history of human rights abuses– began pouring into the country. In truth, Jean-Claude never intended to fully democratize Haitian society, he instead hoped that a few small concessions would help him to secure the benefits of appearing to do so. But soon, his new “liberal policies” allowed for the public expression of widespread discontent and opposition that had long festered just beneath the surface.

Since Francois Duvalier’s 1957 election, Haiti’s government had systematically and strategically cut off avenues of civic participation in political life. During his 14-year rule, Francois co-opted any existing institutions that could oppose his consolidation of power, including the church, the army, and the press. This was a stark contrast to the political campaign season that led to his election, wherein aspiring political figures frequently made impassioned radio speeches in the hopes of courting new supporters. Over the airwaves, presidential hopeful Daniel Fignole sometimes summoned his woulo konmpresè, a popular force of over 10,000 supporters to the street in protest. Duvalier shaped his Noirist ideology in part via public discourse over the airwaves.  However, after taking power, he closed off these avenues of political engagement. By limiting the flow of information, the regime fostered social alienation and mistrust amongst different sectors of the population. 

The vibrant political debates that characterized the 1940s and 1950s Haitian media were replaced with round-the-clock pro-government propaganda. Nearly all independent radio stations and newspapers were shuttered, leaving only pro-Duvalier stations, like La Voix de la Révolution Duvalieriste, and papers like newspapers Le Nouveau Monde and Panorama. When, in 1971, a gravely ill Francois announced the transfer of the presidency to his politically inexperienced 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude, there were no national outlets for citizens to register their resistance. However, many anticipated that the death of Papa Doc would create a political vacuum too large for his son to fill. This possibility inspired new anti-government efforts.

Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

At 4 pm on January 23, as he was leaving his office in Port-au-Prince, Ambassador Knox was accosted and forced into an unmarked sedan. He was driven to his home just outside the city. The kidnappers, brandishing a small arsenal, demanded an audience with the young president. Instead, and in a breach of protocol, Knox contacted the consul general and lured him to the residence, where he too was taken hostage. Two hours later, Jean-Claude Duvalier received the distressing call. 

The young president found himself in a dire situation, given his long-regarded political disinterest. Both critics and supporters of the Duvalier regime believed he would be too weak and ineffectual to hold power. Up until then, Duvalier’s reliance on loyal old guard Duvalierists and his close relationship with Knox had sustained his presidency.  Encouraged by the prospect of millions in international aid, Jean-Claude began distancing himself from the violence of his father’s regime. Jean-Claudisme would tolerate criticism, promote free speech, embrace dissent and welcome repatriating exiles.  As Knox frequently argued, Jean-Claude had “embarked on a course diametrically opposed to the one [Francois Duvalier] pursued.” 

The 1973 kidnapping would be the first public reckoning for the new regime; the first open challenge to Jean-Claude’s political legitimacy. The kidnappers, anti-government leftists, demanded the immediate release of 31 political prisoners, safe passage out of the country, and $100,000 ransom. A final demand would not materialize until the early morning on January 24. After hours of negotiations with Duvalier’s administration, the kidnappers tacked on one last demand; that the details of the kidnappers be shared with Haitian citizens via a national radio broadcast. In defiance of the advice of his father’s most trusted advisers, and to save Knox’s life, Jean-Claude acquiesced. 

At approximately 10am on January 24, French Ambassador Bernard Dorin interrupted existing radio programming with a special announcement: Ambassador Clinton Knox had been kidnapped and held captive by three anti-government rebels. To secure his release the Haitian government had agreed to release 12 political prisoners, pay $70,000 US dollars in ransom, and charter an aircraft to transport the kidnappers and released prisoners to exile in Mexico. 

By conceding, Jean-Claude acted outside of the existing political framework set in place by his father. The Haitian public had come to expect consistency in political culture; any and all opposition was to be immediately crushed. That morning the airwaves carried the news of the dictatorship’s fragility to listeners far and wide. On the heels of the unprecedented announcement, Radio Haïti-Inter began reporting on the kidnapping developments to audiences around the nation.  When Jean L. Dominique, a former agronomist, went on-air, it was the first time since 1957 that domestic news was transmitted without censorship. Listeners were now given unfettered access. Dominique and co-anchor Marcus Garcia were the first reporters to arrive at the Knox’s residence, while he, Ward, and the kidnappers were still inside. Radio Haiti journalists described the surreal scene in detail, and conducted interviews with newly released political prisoners. When Knox finally emerged, listeners were privy to his fragile state, he appeared intoxicated and was clutching a bottle of rum; a stark contrast to his strongman image. When the kidnappers safely boarded an Air-Haiti plane bound for Mexico City, where they were promised (and granted) asylum, Dominique reported from the runway. For the listening public, the scene was simply remarkable.

Jean L. Dominique, Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The broadcast would undoubtedly be the most politically consequential of the kidnappers’ demands. It would mean that, for the first time of Jean-Claude’s young presidency, and for the first time in decades, news of the dictatorship’s fragility and fallibility would reach the entire Haitian populace.  Almost immediately, one journalist noted a change in the country, noting in  “Haiti: Trouble Ahead in Latin America in February 1973 that, when Jean-Claude conceded to the kidnapper’s demands, “Haitians finally realized that Papa Doc was gone forever” (Special Collection and University Archives, Rutgers University, Robert J. Alexander Papers, [MC974.1 Box 3]).

Citizens awoke to find themselves now living in a Haiti where anti-government resistance could succeed. In Isle of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean, Alejandra Bronfman argues that, “as listeners understood themselves to be listening along with others,” new possibilities for social and political life were revealed. For Haitian citizens living under the yoke of an authoritarian government, radio listening became a way to engage in politics and reclaim political agency in defiance of government overreach and repression. Widely accessible radio receivers could bridge areas otherwise geographically disconnected from urban, and often political, centers. Moreover, uncensored kidnapping coverage transformed Haiti’s political arena by radically changing popular ideas of what kinds of resistance were possible. 

One of four photos taken during the return of Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas to Haiti in March 1986, after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Includes two black-and-white photos of Dominique on the runway, one color photo of Dominique, and a group in front of the old Radio Haiti station on Rue du Quai with a banner: “Kafou ak Matisan vle Radio Haïti-Inter.” Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In the aftermath of the kidnapping, Jean-Claude moved quickly to plug the political vacuum that has emerged in the wake of the kidnapping. He was determined to change popular memory of the event. Haitian newspapers began to praise Duvalier’s political acumen in saving the life of two US officials.  A mass rally was organized two days later to celebrate the President’s achievement. There, Jean-Claude gave his first ever public speech entirely in Haitian Kreyòl. “Little Duvalier,” he said, “would never hesitate to crush two or three vagabonds if he wanted to.” Addressing any would-be imitators, he warned, “I will be waiting for them with a big coco macaque.

As the government tried to hold onto power, new journalists and broadcasters were increasingly singled out by the administration. In 1980, a press crackdown led to the arrest of over 100 independent print and radio journalists. Despite government repression, radio broadcasting has been credited with the eventual ouster of Jean-Claude in 1986. The Knox Kidnapping was an early moment that signaled the possibility of a political alternative to Duvalierism. Even Knox agreed. Years later, he’d describe the ordeal as “one the most amazing things to happen in [Haiti] [“Envoy Relates Haitian Rebel Death Threats.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, Jan 26, 1973].

Featured Image: Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas return to Haiti in from exile in 1986 after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, met by 60,000 plus people. Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Jennifer Garcon is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Center for Research Data and Digital Scholarship. Garcon instructs on the use of digital tools, methods, and literacies via tutorials and one-on-one consultations and provides project management and infrastructural support that helps faculty, students, and staff build innovative and sustainable digital projects. She collaborates closely with Penn and Philadelphia-area partners to develop and expand sustainable models for the care of vulnerable collections of data. Garcon received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Miami, an MA in English and American Literatures from Hunter College, a BA in English Literature and Cultures from Brown University. Her academic research interests include radio broadcasting, populist political rhetoric, and grassroots social movement in the Cold War Caribbean. Since 2016, she’s been a research associate with the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force.

tape reel

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“Please move through this site with care.” On Maya Man’s Compassionate Digital Experiments

Maya Man is a young artist, dancer and technologist from New York. Utilising her background in coding and computer science, she makes projects that enhance and expand online experiences. Her work incorporates themes of joy, nostalgia and curiosity all at once, often leaning on early internet aesthetics while projecting a vision of embodied technological bodies into the future.

Maya Man’s personal website (2021). Click to explore.

Maya’s art excites me because it celebrates the possibilities that open up when people and machines work together, and avoids falling into naiveté over the possible risks of such collaboration. I hope more people recognise the potential her works have to change our relationship to the internet and AI. My aim here is to show and discuss a few key works, and invite you to explore Man’s projects yourself, as they are best when experienced first-hand.

Moving with the Machine

“PoseNet Sketchbook” was the first Maya Man artwork I saw online. It is made with a modified algorithm sourced on tensorflow.js. PoseNet tracks a moving body and creates a variety of distorted moving images based on the user’s movements. When I saw the work, I immediately thought of Myron Krueger’s first experiments with immersive environments in the 1970s, like VIDEOPLACE, developed in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of many PoseNet experiments

Still from YouTube video showing one of Krueger’s VIDEOPLACE experiments (1985).

Both works show an interest in tracking and modifying the movements of a body. However, I thought Maya’s work facilitated a more intimate relationship between the participant and the technology capturing their movements. Since the 1970s, our understanding of developing everyday technologies deepened, and various machines entered our daily lives and the very fabric of societies. This shift irreversibly affected how we interact with everyday technologies, and influences the level on which we acknowledge or bypass their existence and visibility.

In Kruger’s immersive environments, the experiences were communal, new and exciting, all-encompassing for as long as participants interacted with the meticulously-built environment. Man’s work, on the other hand, disenchants the spectacle of technological possibility and represents the inseparability of our entanglements with the machine. “PoseNet Sketchbook” exists in multiple places at once, on computer screens of individual users as their shapes shift, distort and layer. The miracle of endless possibility is gone – now, we explore what to do with what remains. Each movement is like a brushstroke, and the effect lasts for as long as the browser tab is open. There is something beautiful and pure in this temporary interaction.

Some of Maya Man’s PoseNet experiments, available to try (click on image).

An intimate staring contest

The idea of close encounters with daily technologies appears in Maya’s other works, establishing itself as a theme. The screens of users are their primary mode of exhibition and existence. Take, for instance, “Glance Back,” a Google Chrome extension that captures the webcam image from a device once a day and prompts the user to record what they were thinking about at that moment.

This process makes visible the data collection that already occurs in search engines and on other platforms that facilitate our online activity. While the browser extension asking you about your thoughts might be jarring to some, it is simply a more streamlined and direct cousin of algorithms that track and predict our actions. “Glance Back” adds nuance to these relations. It acts as a personal diary and prompts personal interest in the performing machine. Unlike other modes of online surveillance, “Glance Back” operates under the agency and consent of the user. Maya explains on the project’s website: “It’s important to note that all of the photos are saved to your browser’s local storage. This means that they never leave your machine. This is a collection shared purely between you and your computer.”

To me, “Glance Back” provides an opportunity to acknowledge the physical and emotional closeness between ourselves and our machines, especially now, when we use them to work, relax, but also socialise with other internet users (our friends and family). Or, more specifically, “Glance Back” allows users to decide whether or not they wish to share such personal data with the extension. Choosing to download it can be an act of making visible the personal connections many of us already have with our devices. However, can it lead to acknowledging this relationship might be toxic? I am not sure. I would love to see Maya engage with the concept of surveillance capitalism and the attention economy further in her practice.

What are you willing to share?

What happens when we willingly share personal information online? A few things. We begin building an archive of feelings and reflections; a sporadic, erratic digitised diary. We hope somebody out there listens, interacts, relates. We might even share things online that we are unwilling to communicate face-to-face. However, doing this invites unwanted attention too, and provides a source that others can use in malicious ways in the future.

Using code as her medium, Maya reinterprets Madeleine’s large file of personal data she’d shared with the artist. Maya built a website that shows notes from Madeleine’s iPhone. What emerges is an intimate portrait of a young woman recording significant, useful and introspective information over the years. For personal use, until now. Looking at the website, I feel like an intruder, even though I am aware she shared the data willingly. Still, it feels too personal to be accessed by just anybody.

Madeleine’s Notes.

I cannot help but keep swiping and reading note after note, and the blue skies in the background add to the whimsical, otherworldly feeling the website evokes. Can this be a modern-day confessional, embedded in code and designed to fit a specific aesthetic, a millennial nostalgic about websites they grew up visiting? I am conflicted, but I keep looking. I realise that this project shows online activity does not have to be so heavily curated. Madeleines.notes and Glance Back take away the users’ ability to select, edit and filter content that reflects who they are. Why not give that agency away? To think how many hours I’ve spent thinking about how to present myself online. I am sick of it now, like many others. I want to refuse to participate in the spectacle, but I am unsure how. Is there an alternative way of relating to social networks? I see Maya’s work can be a stepping stone towards a more balanced and healthy relationship between our actual selves and our virtual/online extensions.

Digital Literacy Now

Maya’s presence online takes many forms, but always carries an interest in embodying compassion and care through machine learning and code. I consider her website to be an artwork in and of itself, a source for artworks and education; points of departure. The Racial Justice Bookshelf needs to be mentioned here. It is a resource made to make it easier to buy anti-racist books from black-owned businesses in the US. Then there is are.na; Maya’s scrapbook of inspiration and information, an ever-growing archive of online happenings and references.

The difficult part is this: Maya’s work does require quite a high level of digital/internet literacy. In the beginning, I struggled to understand how are.na or GitHub even work. However, when I moved past confusion, I started to appreciate and see the exciting potential of alternative platforms, creative coding, and the artistic expression they allow.

“Pretty Machines” on Man’s are.na

Maya speaks openly about her passion for computers and coding, and her interest in facilitating new interactions between bodies and everyday technologies they already encounter and absorb. The future of online content can be more transparent and genuine, based less on the logic of the attention economy and more on the needs and interests of individual users, who come together to experience and share their embodied technological selves. It starts with looking back at the machine that is already watching.

Organize solidarity with arrested member of Moscow Doxa journal

In the early morning of April 14th, 2021, the four editors of the journal DOXA were arrested by Russian authorities. Armen Aramyan, Natasha Tyshkevich, Volodya Metelkin and Alla Gutnikova appeared in court later that day. The purpose of the charges were made clear by the judge – to silence critics – who ordered the editors to house arrest and has restricted them from all electronic communication.

DOXA is a Russian student-run popular journal dedicated to critiques of the modern university. They have served as a clearinghouse for disseminating radical philosophy, especially feminist, Marxist, and anarchist voices. It also hosts editorials about the sprawling Russian university system, highlights student protests, and organizes solidarity for students harassed for speaking out.

The charges against the editors are preposterous. DOXA had posted a rather innocent video urging others to protest without fear and that expelling students for political reasons was unlawful. In response, the Russian communications authority Roskomnadzor demanded they remove the video. DOXA complied and removed the video. Even then, the editors were charged under Article 151.2 of Russian law (“involvement of youth in activities that can be harmful to them”).

Perhaps there is some honor to being charged with the same crime as Socrates? Yet it is remarkable to suggest that university students need protection from DOXA. Only one who uses education to manufacture obedience outlaws critical thinking as self-harm. And it is no coincidence that laws like these are also used against social critics, queers, and migrants.

The Institute of Network Cultures urges all charges to be dropped against the DOXA editors and that all harassment of students immediately cease.

More information:

1) https://doxajournal.ru/ (in Russian)

2) Chronology of Events (in English) https://open-assembly.calarts.edu/index.php/2021/04/14/doxa-chronology-of-events/

3) News report on the Amnesty site: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/04/russia-police-searches-at-student-magazine-are-a-new-low-for-press-freedom/

4) The Moscow Times: Russian Student Journalists Face Jail Over Navalny Protest Video https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/04/14/russian-student-journalists-face-jail-over-navalny-protest-video-a73585

The information above has, in part, been collected by ‘Dark Deleuze’ Andrew Culp, now teaching at Calarts/LA. Please sign his petition. He writes:

“I am reaching out because the student-editors of the Russian journal DOXA were arrested earlier this morning under the charges of “corrupting the youth” by encouraging other students to protest. The event is deeply personal for me, as DOXA was a part of the cohort that has hosted me a number of times in Moscow and I have grown to know some of them quite well.
Perhaps like me, you are pessimistic about petitions. But after expressing this to DOXA earlier this afternoon, they still requested an international solidarity statement from scholars. And if nothing else, it is crucial to mark the absurdity of charges like these whenever they arise. So today I penned a statement in consultation with Slavoj Zizek, with whom I keynoted a conference hosted by DOXA in 2017. The statement can be signed at tiny.cc/DOXAsolidarity.”

The People are Not an Image: A conversation on vernacular video [3/3]

This is the final blog post of the three-part conversation between film professor, media producer, theorist, and activist dr. Alexandra Juhasz and journalist, historian, and filmmaker Peter Snowdon.

Alex

In this moment, living in COVID; living as we do in isolation; living in fear; living in America (as I do) where, thank goodness, we have a new president; but still living under a shadow if Trump; living on racist underpinnings, systems, and structures ongoing; it’s hard to watch media right now with anything other than cynicism, fear, depression—this is what I bring to images today. And yet somehow, I am still committed to media, even as most recently, I’ve left the physical and indexical image, working instead with poetry as a format for radical digital media literacy about the social media crisis which is fake news. What do you feel about video now?

Figure 17: Group poem penned at a Fake News Poetry Workshop with the feminist queer writer’s collective, Devil’s Dyke, in Brighton England, 2018

Peter

I have been through a period of deep disillusionment with images, and with artistic practice in general, over the last two years. Am I coming through that? I guess only time will tell. What I do think is that something is broken, and that has as much or more to do with the way in which media are produced and circulated, as it has with the films and videos as objects in and of themselves. The cinema, to give it its grandest name, still seems to me perfectly functional. But it seems to be functioning increasingly in terms of an audience that already exists, and not an audience – a public, or a people – that is yet to come. One historic sequence in this history is over, perhaps, and the next is only just emerging, and we cannot see it clearly. But I share the conviction of the Tunisian critic Tahar Chikahoui,  that if we want a glimpse of that future, we are more likely to find it in these vernacular videos from the Arab revolutions (even if they are already a decade old…), than on Netflix or on Mubi.

Like you, I do find myself wanting to explore other forms which have different constraints and different possibilities. I spent 2019 trying to write a novel that took what I had learned about structure and editing from making films and tried to redeploy that on the page, in my case, in prose. It didn’t work out – partly because the particular subject I chose to work with backfired on me. But I enjoyed the process, and I have a sense that I may want to try it again…

At the same time, I think that our current situation deserves investigation in its own terms. The bizarre and often shifting mixtures of connection and isolation produced by lockdown are something new, and have produced a series of forms which offer new opportunities for both extrapolation and subversion. So one thing I’m working on right now is a series of conversations (in different media) for the journal Collateral,  which I’m co-curating with my friends Paige Sarlin and Remco Roes. In these, I’m particularly interested in how lockdown has and has not changed the ways in which we talk with each other.

In reading again sections of your Learning from YouTube, I was struck by this thing you say several times, about how media activism isn’t about individual images or individual videos. It’s about the whole context of action and process and community that exists around and between the videos. And for me, I think we make our best decisions about those kind of things with other people, not in isolation. Being in collectivity with others provides us with resources that we don’t have when we think we’re on our own. How that is possible for us right now, when we cannot so easily leave the house to assemble in common spaces, is an open question. But I am sure that some of what is going on – both online and offline – has already generated creative responses to these questions that would not have been found otherwise. And the full potential of those inventions and strategies may not be fully visible, or recognised, for some time.

Alex

In my current activist COVID work produced with the collective What Would an HIV Doula Do? and with longtime AIDS activist collaborators, like Pato Hebert, who like me (and you), have or have had COVID,, I stay committed to opposing the naming of “silver linings” to ongoing catastrophes. And here is where I double down on being medium agnostic. Okay, yes, we currently must use social and digital media, and their corporate platforms, to survive these particular pandemic conditions—these tools and platforms are what are at hand— but what we do with them is what political people have always done, no more, even if we seem to have less, even as these very media try to convince us that they are all we need. Making do with digital media is not all I want or need, is not how we will mutually remedy our illness, isolation, racism, distrust, or ongoing impoverishment. We will need to use masks, photography, poetry, conversation and more…

Figure 18: Photo by Pato Hebert from his Disembodies series, and our 2nd co-authored piece on long-term COVID, “It Could be So Much Worse.”

Peter

… and dancing, and walking, cooking, gardening, building… Our whole sense of our collective embodiment has taken a serious blow over the last year – one that has pushed us not only towards new extremes, but also into new opacities and forms of disconnection between and with the other people around us. For some of us, COVID remains even today an almost invisible phenomenon – something that is known only through its mediatisation, and through the physical absences produced by the biopolitical measures put in place. For others, it has been a cataclysm happening directly in their bodies, and the bodies of those they love, and which is yet barely nameable or shareable as such, thanks to the ongoing impoverishment of our shared language, which depends on the maintenance of shared spaces and shared rituals and gestures – all the things we have been deprived of, and have had to try and reinvent. It’s in this context that I see your turn to poetry. Even more than vernacular images, we need to restore vernacular speech – those words which are ours, which are fashioned and refashioned through the attempt to articulate our own experiences, on our own terms, among ourselves. Perhaps we need poetry today even more than we need films or videos. Perhaps we always have.

Alex

When we spoke earlier about how making videos is bettered by sharing it with others and talking about it together, we implied that vernacular video, or political media, gain an effective intoxicating pull in conversation, in a shared embrace, in a mutual engagement, in a known and multi-peopled interaction enabled by technology. The tools are only that; it is how we use them that potentially saves or changes us. Vernacular video, or Zoom, could bring one into the collective, just as they could alienate you from it or from yourself. Digital media could isolate you. It brought us this conversation. Our media intentions, choices, and contexts matter.

Figure 19: “Pato Lying in Bed, April 3, 2020,” from his Disembodies series, in “You’re Still Sick,” Juhasz and Hebert

Much as is true of your work on vernacular video, my earlier work on YouTube celebrates video (and also art and communication) that speaks its history, and names the place from whence an image springs, as well as where it might connect historically, politically, and humanly. Because face it: there’s always also the parallel pressure of the no-context, the corporate-context, for any video on the internet. YouTube makes and owns context and structure for viewing: what you watch next, advertisements, fonts. You suggest that the videos that inspired you are “occupying YouTube,” and perhaps that was true for a moment, or a year, or several years. That body of vernacular video and its anarchive held space despite YouTube’s constraints and contexts.

But I’ve been consistently interested in the pressure of the corporate underpinnings that at once permit videos to sit and move only then always to restabilize them, not for community but for capital. That context: the corporate owned and built infrastructure of advertising, censorship, data-collection. Do we also need to control these other layers of technology or is it enough to use video as we’ve been emphasizing: to bring some more people into community and consolidate friendships and connections ethically? Do we just let the rest of the context go? And, since we know that much of that anarchive of vernacular video that you cared so deeply about was ultimately used against people, I know that we can’t just give that up. We don’t own the infrastructure and that harms us.

Peter

The fact that we don’t own the infrastructure is a huge problem – and not only when it comes to the media! As Tere Vadén and Juha Suoranta put it, “socialist media = basic welfare + common servers + the power of the soviets.” The equation, of course, also applies in other domains.

In the meantime, for sure there will be other openings, and other occupations. The only thing I’m sure of is that the next time, it won’t be YouTube. There’s a moment in technological emergence where the space that a technology opens hasn’t yet been closed down and controlled. Today, all these years later, that level of YouTube may persist somewhere for some activist communities, but it’s been buried under all the other layers. The only way to get to it for most people is through projects that actively excavate the archive, and reconstitute it, otherwise, and elsewhere. I’m thinking of things like Mosireen’s video archive of the Egyptian revolution at 858.ma, or bak.ma which began as an archive of the occupation of Gezi Park in 2013 and has since developed well beyond that. (The similar domain names point to a common infrastructure, the pando/ra software for open video archives developed and maintained by 0x2620 in Berlin and CAMP in Bombay. The very existence of this software, and these archives, represent one possible form that can be taken by the practical transnational solidarity I talked about earlier.)

It’s almost like we find ourselves in a different geological era. Those potentials that briefly came to the surface and seemed almost for a moment to be triumphant, now a decade ago, have since been powerfully compacted under corporatization. This is not only a question of material infrastructure and its affordances, but also of how we think and speak about them, the spaces our language opens up, and those it closes down. I was struck too when you write about how the biological metaphor of “the viral” works to conceal the intentions and affordances that are being developed behind all that layering. That language functions to condition us for acceptance. We accept the “viral” because it sounds natural, and that language has itself been naturalised. So, it does not appear as the projection of power that it is, it’s just what’s happening. The fact that we have no control of it becomes a given, and not – as it should be – a site of struggle.

Alex

I believe you are referring to my adage “virality is virility,” that has grown from my fake news literacy work? That viral logic, one fully manifested in weaponized mediatized grandiosity is damaging not just to the world, but to movements where historically, any potential outsider who grows the we is understood as critically important. But this commitment to human growth is now nestled within a viral logic—the more, the better, the bigger, the more, the hits, the influence—that comes out of neo-liberalism and late stage capitalism, and which underwrites the internet. So, again, I believe we have to be local. We have to be small. We have to think against this violent growth and through other logics. But maybe that’s not it exactly: not one or the other. Because in your book, you are very, very moved by how big it all is. How many of them there are, how far it goes:

It is through such assemblages – of videos, but not only of videos – that the distributions of knowledge and of ignorance, of perception and of blindness, of distance and of intimacy, which support the political regimes these revolutions have sought to bring down (and in which we may perhaps recognize the lineaments of a larger political dispensation, whose measureless ambition seeks to imprison and reduce life everywhere) can be temporarily rendered inoperative, so that new relations may emerge among the “people” – that is, between the numberless singularities that compose and traverse an “us.” (p. 212)

The unmeasurable mass of numberless singularities is one aspect of the power you relish in that anarchive: it’s bigger than one video and as small as the particular. So, there is something to scale that moves, and moves people. That connects. How do we keep this gentle, I wonder?

Figure 20: Poetry fragment from Fake News Poetry Workshop held in Toronto during the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual meetings, 2018. My 18-episode podcast from Summer 2020 about the Fake News Poetry project is called “We Need Gentle Truths for Now.”

Peter

I’m not impressed by the big as such, and certainly not by the biggest. And I also write against the totalising images that try to sum such events up in a single top-shot of Tahrir Square in which the image becomes simply a cipher for some very large number, that is ultimately the number “1”… There is a quality in the moment of expansion and extension, the moment when something passes from one person to another, one street to another, one crowd to another, that is less to do with size than with a gradient of intensity. There is a moment where the shift in quantity becomes a shift in quality, and which has nothing to do with arguments over whether on such and such a day it was 1 million people in the street, or 2 million, or “only” a couple of hundred thousand.

Also, I guess that what I’m thinking is: as we are scaling up, are we also retaining our control, our own specific ways of speaking and organizing while also leaving space for each other? I’m tempted to reach for an economic analogy. It’s one thing to have global trade in weird, precious commodities, like rare stones, or specialist artefacts, or obscure perfumes, as long as 90% of your interrelationships with people remain within a scale that you can feel some sort of membership in and some sort of influence over. But when even just meeting your basic nutritional needs depends upon global supply chains over which you have absolutely no knowledge let alone competence, that is another story. And I think with images, it is the same. If there’s a basis of small-scale (human-scale) autonomy, then you can engage with people who are not part of that “scale” on a totally different basis than if you don’t have that. To engage easily and fruitfully with people who are distant from you, in whatever sense of “distant,” it’s important that you are not centrally dependent on them for crucial, vital, life-and-death things. And given that condition, then the distant can be a realm that is generative of curiosity and hospitality, rather than being subject to overwhelming imperatives and needs, and thus to the expanding leverage of force and violence.

To put it another way, there are political and economic constructions that effectively undermine the ethics and politics of friendship. What seems to me vital is to work on and in these fields where friendship becomes not only possible again, but where its potency can grow.

Alex

The potency of people, the intensity of engagement, the reciprocity of seeing and being seen, these can be produced and also shared, with technologies. You write about the “wes” and “thems,” but there are people who are not in either the “we” or the “them.” They’re not the bad guy. They’re not the “they.” But they’re also not local, and they’re watching, and they’re having feelings. That’s a lot of people, especially around the videos you consider. How can we bring each one of those people in to the “we”? I don’t know what kind of vernacular video can do that today given their scale, and given who owns them. So maybe we need tools today to select and composite. Maybe we need new things that we might still call documentaries in that they bundle fragments into human-scaled, movement-oriented experiences of each other.

In my “Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary,” I think about the skillful management of the total collection of mediated fragments about Facebook to itself be a “documentary.” In that cynical piece, I suggest that powerful corporations are best placed to have this kind of total and creative control over internet fragments. In later work, about my own related funky online art projects, I think about what this might look like on a human, feminist, and local scale.

Peter

We should always remember that the proportion of these videos from the Arab revolutions that were circulated on the Internet were a tiny minority. The filmmaker Stefano Savona has described how returning to Cairo some time after the 18 days, he found the people who he had met during the first phase of the revolution sharing their videos with one another by showing them their phones – offering them as concrete tokens of trust, whose place is in those immediate, face-to-face relations, not in the no-context of the online. This is also another way in which the non-local and the local depend upon each other, and make each other possible.

These documentaries you imagine would function, it seems to me, in another way again, one I associate with what traditionally would have made film art: that each such film contains, or should contain, its own context, or at the very least a proposal for what that context can be, from which we can assent or dissent. And so, in that limited practical sense, it therefore has a kind of autonomy which allows it to travel and potentially also call for a response in a different register.

Alex

That is what the internet is not; that is what YouTube is not; that is what Twitter is not. These infrastructures, these platforms are not that, not art. The corporate Titans that produce them have tried to convince us that they could be that for us. They tell us this fake news: that they are a total context. But I say, that will not do for our project of ethical, reciprocal, change-focused, mediated engagement.

Figure 21: Photo of poem fragment penned at Fake News Poetry Workshop in Toronto, during the 2018 SCMS conference.

Peter

But you can still go into a pub that’s part of a corporate chain. And if you switch the music off for two minutes, you can sing folk songs, protest songs, work songs, in the corner – whether they be old songs, or new ones – until the management put the music back up, or try and throw you out. What matters is that those songs are yours, they belong to you, they are enmeshed with the texture of your daily life, and so they speak to you of and from that life. The battle even for that kind of limited space may be intensifying. But spaces can still be, and will still be, commandeered, because people will feel the visceral need to do so, and at some point, neither they nor anyone else will be able to repress that desire for a space, and a language, that are ours.

In a way, that’s also what I was trying to do with the film: smuggle these very lo-fi videos through a form that might, conceivably, lead to them being shown one day in a multiplex, and then – watch what happens. Watch what kinds of conversations take place, what kinds of connections are formed, after the lights go back up. Or rather, not watch them, but be there in them, with them, part of them. The important part of filmgoing, even in its most traditional sense, is what happens when the film is over, and we are left alone, together.

I guess, in the end, I’m just really confident in people – not all people, but in people, that part in each of us (as Agustín García Calvo puts it) that is still able to say “no” – to continue inventing workarounds and solutions and ways out of, and tricks, to evade this control, that I could never anticipate or predict. And I was very delighted in 2011, 2012 to feel that I was actually “there” when one of these “ways out” was being realized, and it was realized partly in a space that I could enter into, as well as in those streets and those squares that were too far away for me to join them there. And next time, it will be different.

Alex

And to me, that’s medium agnostic and technologically motivated but not dependent. And yes, I share your faith that human beings will and do find humane uses of media and technology even when or because they’re controlled there and elsewhere.

Figure 22: Video-poem made by participants at a Fake News Poetry Workshop at New Utrecht High, in Brooklyn NY, 2019

Peter

Yes. Because in the end, the sad reality of that control is that on the level that matters most, it is an illusion. So, the controllers will always be the ones who have missed out – the ones who have not actually lived.

Alex

I think I heard you say before that that thing is what we call art, and you found it once on YouTube.

Peter

In the sense that art is what it feels like when you are living from the center of your humanity. It’s not something you find in a museum. Yes, exactly!

 

The People are Not an Image: A conversation on vernacular video [2/3]

This is the follow-up of the three-part blog series of the insightful conversation between film professor, media producer, theorist, and activist dr. Alexandra Juhasz and journalist, historian, and filmmaker Peter Snowdon.

Alex

Peter, I really love the way you write about each of the distinct videos in your book The People Are Not an Image, your deep close readings. You let each small work take time on the page to stand as a separate complex object, while at the same time making larger claims about vernacular video and its place within these movements. YouTube videos so rarely get seen (by critics) with the kind of attention we more typically offer to great works of media art. And then, your writing about the video itself produces that very feeling of mediated-connectedness, or maybe even friendship that we’ve been discussing.

You dedicate each chapter to one video, often beginning with a transcript of audio and some screenwriting direction to let us see the piece, followed by an analysis that develops through what you learn in conversation with each short work. Chapter One, “A Happy Man,” focuses on a video by rideaudur, posted January 17, 2011. You begin:

In this short clip, we hear more than we see a man walking up and down along a main artery (“the avenue,” as he calls it) of a North African city. As he walks, he improvises a poetic panegyric in honor of the people of his country and the freedom they have won for themselves. Yet the people of whom and to whom he speaks are nowhere to be seen. Indeed, as the clip progresses, it may seem that he is less assuming their existence than trying to conjure them into being. (pg, 29)

9. A Happy Man from Peter Snowdon on Vimeo.

Peter

That particular video is one that means a lot to me, as I believe it did to many other people. It is one of the few that made it into my film more or less unedited. And a large part of what I was doing in the book came from something that occurred to me fairly early on when making the film. I had to accept that, as a general rule, I couldn’t keep the videos whole, that I had to edit them. And so the writing became, in part, a project to restore the integrity of each video.

I was seeing short films coming from a place that I had never expected, which were made in an audiovisual language that seemed both very new, but also coherent with languages that I knew from traditions of experimental media work that seemed to me to have nothing to do with this place and time, and which may or may not have been particularly political in their intent. So, when I was describing these individual videos, I really wanted the writing to recreate for me, and thus for the reader, this sense that this may only be three minutes and 27 seconds of screen time, but this is an actual “work,” as solid and as densely wrought and as present as anything you might pay to see in a cinema (or, more likely, a cinematheque…).

If I insist on the sensory and kinetic qualities of these videos, it is because the videos themselves insist on them. They are above all exercises in the concrete, and as such, acts of resistance against the kinds of abstraction that characterize both the practice of government and certain species of intellectual discourse. (…) They do not offer etiologies, genealogies, or any other type of rationalization. They do not explain, much less explain away. They are presentations rather than representations. They are committed to appearance as a space of action in and for its own sake, not as something to be decoded or demystified. (p. 3)

There is so much that happens in each video which needs to be recognised and honoured. So, in some sense, it was a relief to be able to just attend to one video at a time, and not to have to be also thinking of all the others, or negotiating between them, as I had in making the film where I began to understand the work of editing not just at a practical level, but also more theoretically. My hypothesis was that these videos could together tell a story that would be intelligible without any external assistance, without the need for narration or context. That they could do that work themselves, and that all I had to do was trust the videos. But then, I discovered that it wasn’t enough to trust the videos – they also had to accommodate each other, to make space for one another, without any one of them cancelling or erasing the others. Just as you can’t have a collectivity in which each person does nothing but proclaim their individuality, you cannot have a film in which each shot runs its full unedited length. And in this precise sense, editing is, by its very nature, a political enterprise.

Alex

In this sense, so too is videomaking. It is always an act of selection, framing, argument-building, and affect-production in service of communication or inspiration. But I need to emphasize that not all vernacular video is political video, and this is where I find your close readings and associated theorizing of this body of work so important. You are writing about video that engages self-documentation with a revolutionary duty. You outline the many conditions that need to be in place for people-made video (always in conversation with or even as corporate media) to be active in a project of world-changing and revolution-making. You bring to our attention a kinetic, affective regime, in its formal dimensions, and as a body of video made of individual work by individual people—how this makes us feel, and what it asks us to do.

Figure 10: Still from The Uprising(2013) / YouTube video uploaded by feb tub, February 14, 2011.

Peter

My focus was on disrupting definitions that decree what is and is not possible. I was consciously writing in opposition to a lot of the rhetoric and ideology around YouTube and social media which seemed to posit a form of “sharing” which is actually not an act of sharing at all. In particular, the term “vernacular” is often used in a very apolitical, and watered-down sense. I wanted to reclaim the word vernacular as that which is outside of, and resistant to, the administered and governed life. I took this from Ivan Illich, who I had first read back in Paris in the 1990s. It wasn’t an accident that these videos which seemed to be contesting the conventional, Euro-American sense of the vernacular as a kind of inoffensive amateurization, rather than a space of resistance and contestation, were happening in these specific places and at this particular time – that is, within an Arab world where, as Mohamed Bamyeh has argued, a centuries-old “civic ethics” still persists today, not as some sort of ossified tradition, but as “an old, rational and enlightened common attitude” that continues to guide people as they work through the trials and tribulations of everyday life.  In these countries, there is still a certain real experience of shared space as itself a form of never-ending negotiation, and community as something tangible, not merely aspirational. And this is true not only in working-class neighbourhoods or farming villages, but also to a large extent for many strata of the middle classes, including those who might be seen to have benefited from economic liberalisation, in so far as their position remains contested, and often fragile.

Alex

You use the word vernacular two more times in the book. On top of “vernacular video,” you also take up this verb, vernacularization: video that records daily life and in so doing understands this new kind of visibility as part of a larger political project that you say exceeds the local. It must be local to make it vernacular, but the vernacularization occurs in its mediation and distribution when technology assures that the daily exceeds the local. You claim that this is performative. There’s a necessary self-awareness in the enacting of the self, and the place, and its dailiness, which is written formally and received affectively and hence politically.

Figure 11: screengrab of YouTube video uploaded by webamri amri, 29 January 2011.

I wrote something quite similar about AIDS activist video when I was theorizing my own community-based video activism by, for, and about urban women of colour and AIDS. While realist practices might seem to outsiders as untutored, unintentional, and not of the more rigorous practices of artists or intellectuals, media coming from and for a movement knows itself with a formal self-awareness. This is a political awareness because it is generated through an often dangerous personal act of coming into voice and community. It is performed and received as such by viewers from that place. That’s easy to feel for its local viewership (which is the point), but harder to name for others, I think. And that’s what you’re attending to when you so carefully engage in close readings of the quick, daily, but connected mediation of actual bodies and their political lives.

Can you talk about the tension between how vernacular videos document actual people, bodies, and their political lives and how these fit into vernacular anarchives: a complex assembly of all these discrete videos—and their people— that is bigger and more convincing than what any one video can do.

Peter

Maybe this goes back to what I alluded to before, that my own formative experiences of community were not experiences of unproblematic self-identity, but rather of complex and even disruptive forms of displacement. Community doesn’t always coincide with itself, or with the local. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as a certain way of being with displacement and non-coincidence, and not as their absence or their abolition. And then, community always needs an outside. The question is what is the relationship to that outside – is it generative, or is it simply erasure and violence? Somewhere we’re afraid of? Or somewhere we can escape to?

These videos are very much addressed to an outside—to multiple outsides—in a way that is not strictly bounded or policed, though at times there are boundaries which are, and have to be, very firmly asserted. But in general, their address is open. They don’t exist as atoms but are already an assemblage. Even in each individual video, there’s a sense that it’s the collectivity of videos that matters, not any single gesture. And the power of that assemblage is not simply numerical. It’s not simply a question of how many people are in the street, or how many videos take over the internet. What matters is to create an intensity which can attract people to it. So, between the individual video and the anarchive as an open totality, there are all these specific associations and assemblages that come into being for a certain time, and act as attractors of energy, as provisional poles of clarity, and as creators and distributors of meaning.

If filming was a means of participation for the filmer, then the videos that were produced and uploaded were not just documents of that participation, but rather (in the most direct sense) invitations to others to act in their turn. (…) More specifically, they were inviting the viewer not only to emulate but also to compete with what they had seen, to try to exceed the model in revolutionary fervour. (p. 175)

Figure 12: still from The Uprising (2013) / YouTube video uploaded by 5000zukoo, September 21, 2011.

Alex

You suggest that the possibility of an outside is critical for an ethics of solidarity: what you call “a we.” This calling comes from of a local, every day, but also, of course, exceptional I that is living and taping in-community in-revolution. There could be, or perhaps there must be, an anticipated outsider—a you—who is called by this performative address, someone who is outside the local, someone who needs this representation, someone who might connect. That is one reason, among many, why each I is making and distributing each short videotape: to be seen and heard, yes, but also to connect to other I’s in this articulation. In your book, you write about that person, that outsider, that imagined or hailed viewer, as being close by, in proximity, although not exactly local: ideally in one of these countries in revolution, and thus called not just to look or connect but also to the/their street. The call asks: who’s going to join us in the street and become the we?

Figure 13: screengrab of YouTube video uploaded by Iyad El-Baghdadi, 2 February, 2011.

But what of the “we” who is not nearby, not in or of the region? We who hear the call and cannot respond. Before the internet, if you made a work like this it would stay local, and it would take many years for it to circulate to others around the world: a local call displaced by time. You suggest that for this body of video from the Arab Spring, and because of social media, this nearby in place happens in real time. But I think about this differently. I actually understand the production of this kind of “we” as a failed promise of YouTube; the deep lie of the internet; and an aspect of your theorizing of vernacular video that is not yet complete. What does it mean when we reach that person, those people, in great numbers—really reach an outsider, and you, who is distant and other. Yes, the reaching happens, the call is heard, but the associated doing that you build into your theory of vernacular video stays impossible, even if it is felt in each work.

Figure 14: screengrab of YouTube video uploaded by LLWProductions, 20 March, 2011.

The energy of the call and response to the street that you find so intoxicating in these videos is consumed differently for another “we” that is made up of distant viewers, like me (and not you!), even as or perhaps because the intoxication of the local and the revolution is so very evident, so skillfully produced, in each iteration. Voices from afar on the internet are intoxicating, yes, and just as often also paralyzing. We can’t help, we can’t go there. And things on the internet, even when they are intoxicating, are also always interchangeable. For that other, for this we, there is another consumption and a different politics. What is the value of vernacular video for viewers who can’t join in the street, who never will even as they are moved by the videos, if momentarily but frequently?

Figure 15: screengrab of YouTube video uploaded by LLWProductions, 20 March, 2011.

And then, of course, there’s difference in time as well as distance. Over time, the videos stay there online, and they also stay the same. Do they continue to call for a “we,” even as their insurrections are over, or have failed? How do they work now, still there in their “anarchive.”

Peter

In 2001, there was a major uprising in Algeria which almost brought the regime to its knees. I remember following this, both through daily reports in the French and Algerian press, and by listening to stories told by my friends, which they had heard from their families back “home.” Shortly afterwards, I came across Jaime Semprun’s book, Apologie de l’insurrection algérienne,  which had a huge impact on me (though I later understood how partial some of his sources probably were, and thus the potential for other interpretations of these events). I remember how at the very end of this short text, he writes that, while we cannot know whether this insurrection will fail or succeed, what we do know already is that there has never been a group of revolutionaries who were so completely isolated, both inside their own country and outside it, as those in Algeria in 2001.

From this, I inherited a sense that an essential question for those on the outside – and so, for me, in 2011 – was, what could we do to address and alleviate this isolation? That is, how could we retrieve and restore forms of international or transnational political practice which already, in 2001, seemed to hang in the balance? This was very much in my mind when I was working on the film and book. Semprun also says that anybody in Europe who is following what is happening in Algeria through the newspapers can only feel ashamed of their own failure to stand up to the forms of oppression and dehumanization under which they themselves live.

And so, it seems to me that he suggests two axes along which we can approach these different degrees or kinds of outsiderness: the transnational other and the ethical other. And both these forms are in need of re-activation.

While obviously most people who watch these videos outside the places where they were made – or even within those countries – do not act, that is not necessarily the fault of those videos. If we are in Brussels or Paris or London or New York (or in some province of one of the countries of which these cities claim to be in some sense the capital) and we do not act, it is not because there is nothing to do and no one to act with. After all, even if we do not go there, “our” governments often do, with armies and weapons that are operated by our compatriots and funded by our tax dollars. And the people who live “there”, and whose only aspiration is perhaps to continue living there in peace, increasingly and massively take the enormous risk of coming here, because the risk of staying where they are even one day longer has become quite literally intolerable.

So perhaps we should see our inaction rather as one symptom of a larger problem – a problem of modes of isolation, demotivation, and disempowerment, that do not require literal physical distance to play a structuring role in our lives, and which can be questioned and ultimately overcome starting in many places, not just one. And perhaps our anger and frustration with these videos, and with the passivity-enchancing effect we imagine they may regularly (but not infallibly) have on people around us, is just one part of a larger process that is actively pushing many of us to act, not just against video, but against the causes of (this kind of) video, too.

In any case, we cannot isolate video as one total self-sufficient moment or action, and then find it wanting. No single form of communication will ever be adequate in itself. Video may be useful as part of a larger process, but it is not a substitute for that larger process. And the basis of that larger process, if it is to be fruitful, has to begin with the recovery of lived practices of mutual support and trust, not only within, but also across the frontiers and barriers that are used to divide and separate us.

So, perhaps what we are lacking is not so much the means to act from wherever we may happen to find ourselves, but the capacity to see through the barriers that are carefully placed in the way of our impulses to solidarity. The question, then, for the images of vernacular video would be: do they act to naturalise those barriers, to make them seem even more immovable and opaque? Or to reveal them for what they are – artificial, impermanent, and fragile in proportion to the force that has to be deployed to defend them?

In any case, we cannot simply say that for we who are “outside” or far away there is nothing to do, that there is no concrete way to convert affective solidarity into action. The crucial role played by so many diasporas, and their allies, in the decolonial and national liberation struggles of the 20th century is sufficient to demonstrate the opposite. And today, when the world is even more intricately interlinked by transnational infrastructures of circulation and extraction, the potential for strategies of distributed solidarity and disruption is, if anything, even greater than in the past! Andreas Malm’s recent call to revive the North-South anti-imperialist fronts that characterised the second half of the 20th century as the only strategically adequate response to climate change is just one example of how this potential could be channelled into meaningful action.

But beyond that, I think these videos and the worlds they invoke should also encourage us to question our definition of “action.” Historically, many of the most potent forms are in fact assertive inaction: the boycott, the strike… What we saw across the Arab world in 2011-12 is perhaps better figured as a series of massively disruptive interruptions in the forms of habitual activity that support and sustain existing forms of power and governance. Occupying squares, or marching slowly down streets, are themselves, first and foremost, ways of bringing traffic to a halt, of preventing the unquestioned continuation of all those other connections between us – the ones we do not choose, the ones we may not want.

In a world that is running to its ruin in large part because of the psychotic addiction of a small but influential minority of people to producing things that nobody needs (and to producing the desires that can make those things seem necessary), the refusal to produce anything, to “do” anything, even to desire anything, can still, I think, be a radical act – and depending on how it is configured, perhaps, the most radical. And this potential – to down tools, to cease to consume, to withdraw our attention and our participation, to become not only more self-reliant (materially, emotionally, and intellectually) but also less productive, less visible, less “active” – is always available, everywhere. It is not equally possible for everyone, of course; but it is equally available. Making it equally possible, equally imaginable – that is the work.

Alex

So, your work with vernacular video, your new book about it, and this conversation all focus on ethical media engagements: through friendship, hospitality, and lived community. These are less actions than better ways of being human, together, by making use of technology, as needed. You suggest that there is a vernacular form of mediamaking that produces, invites, and moves this ethics of engagement. I think we are together suggesting that deeper commitments—beyond a received-hail and its linked feelings of being seen or a momentary exhilaration—must align with the call to connect through representation for this work to be revolutionary or perhaps transformative. Are we making a case for the mediated local, a known, felt, and sharable here-and-now of a specific person for a known people?

Figure 16: still from The Uprising / YouTube video uploaded by FreedomRevolution25, January 24, 2012.

Peter

I certainly don’t want to minimise the importance of the local in any way. As long as our economies and lifeways have not been completely deracinated, then the local will continue to be where many of our most important relations emerge and flourish. But I don’t want to fetishise it, either. There are many different kinds of relationships that we can embrace on many different scales. Effective change will probably require us to mobilise across many or even all of them, in different combinations and for different purposes. Strong linkages, after all, can surely work both ways– to facilitate trust, but also to block change. The devil seems to me, as always, to be in the detail.

As for the question you raise about what happens to these videos when the insurrections are “over,” when they have “failed” (whatever that means – and without denying that, in one very real sense at least, their immediate aftermath has been catastrophic both for those from this region who were most directly involved in these movements, as well as for the larger society around them), this is a very important one. But in writing, I have always felt that part of my work is, precisely, to keep the question of success or failure open. In 2013, 2014, many other people were writing about these events as if they were already history. And to me, already then, that just seemed wrong. 

In 2013, I spent almost two months in Egypt. And I remember the second time I came back I was physically depressed by the experience – by what I was picking up from what was going on with my friends. Most of them were not frontline actors: they were of my generation, already in their late 40s or 50s, and it was often their children who’d been in the streets more than they had. And I wanted to write against that depression, and all its suppositions and assumptions. I was looking for something like an antidote. So it seemed to me more important at the time to try and keep this idea alive: that these videos were still speaking to us in the present tense. And therefore, that the possibilities that they had opened were somehow still alive. And it is part of the nature of moving images – their perpetual, ineliminable present tense – that they are constantly moving us to respond to them as if they were present – as if what they show us is still unfolding. Even if that presentness is, in some sense, a fiction – the fiction that is embedded at the heart of every act of viewing an audiovisual document (or of reading an essay, or a poem, or…): that the past is not yet past, and so that the future of that past might still turn out differently. That it, somehow, still depends on us, on what we choose to do.

It was the same when I made the film: I wanted it to end in such a way that whatever was in the newspaper the next morning, I wouldn’t feel like I’d foreclosed a future that was still unfolding, by over-committing to one specific concrete narrative, to one particular outcome, whether it be labelled “success” or “failure.” And, when I watch the film again myself, I see how my own response varies wildly from screening to screening. Of course, that’s true of all images, and of all art and all media. Our perception, our changing awareness, is an index of how we’re reading ourselves into the image at any particular viewing. Our reading, our response, is always a function of the state which we ourselves are in. Our ability to engage or not to engage with what an image may be proposing varies widely, and often in ways we are not aware of. This is part of the radical openness of media – that they expose us also to our own radical openness, and thus, ultimately, to our own capacity for change, both personal and collective.

––

Read the final part of the conversation here.

The People are Not an Image: A conversation on vernacular video [1/3]

This is the first of what will be a three-part blog series in which we present the insightful conversation between film professor, media producer, theorist, and activist dr. Alexandra Juhasz and journalist, historian, and filmmaker Peter Snowdon. Last year, the two held multiple virtual conversations at the digital roundtables of Zoom about the ubiquity of such communication methods and underlying philosophical themes such as being human in communities across distance in times of the pandemic.

In the Fall of 2020, Alex Juhasz, in lockdown at home in Brooklyn, NY wrote an email to Peter Snowdon in Belgium. They didn’t know each other, but he had quoted her once or twice in his new book, The People Are Not an Image (Verso: 2020), which she had just completed reading. They knew of each other, as people of certain intellectual/art worlds are wont to do. Over a few email back-and-forths, she explained that beyond complimenting him on his book, she hoped for something quite a bit more: might they talk? Could they record this, transcribe it, and try to share what emerged from their digital encounter about online video? These resulting words have been both edited and changed for clarity, and at one or two points extended, to give space for tracks of thought unfolding. What follows became something they named and did together online during COVID (to which they both ultimately succumbed over this time!): a demonstration of some possibilities for being alive, human, and connected, in what we hope is a non-sentimental, non-simplifying kind of way, albeit via corporate technologies and their dominant capitalist platforms.

Alex

Peter, I want to start by situating ourselves in place and time and technology—a conversation recorded and transcribed from Zoom—for reasons related to our kindred theories and practices around what you call “vernacular video.” I also need you to know that this will be my last scholarly endeavor for a while. My mother is really sick and I’m flying to Colorado this afternoon. I’m very stressed out. But I also need you to know that I prepared for this conversation as one of the last things I did in my own specific space of COVID-inspired trauma. I was just as re-energized and excited by your book this morning as I was the first time I read it, and this reminded me that our intellectual and activist commitments, and the ideas and practices that matter to us as individuals and allies, are part of what makes me feel most alive, human, and connected. So, that’s where I’m coming from: a little distracted and stressed and also a human being meeting and talking with you for the first time on a video-screen about activist digital media, what I myself called “ThirdTube” in 2007 in my born-and-stay-digital Learning from YouTube (MIT Press), so many years ago now in the short but fertile life of social media and its dominant capitalist platforms.

Figure 1: View of corporate mall/long-stay hotel complex where Alex lived, isolated for a month, in the outskirts of her hometown of Boulder CO.

Peter

Thank you for that—for making the space and time to talk at a moment that is so fraught for you, and for letting me know that for you, this conversation isn’t just another piece of work, but—like all the best things we call “work”—something that gives you energy.

It’s a strange period. As we speak, I’m sitting in an unorthodox position myself, not surrounded by books or DVDs for once, because I’m in the bedroom! My partner and I, we’re both working from home in an apartment that is large enough, but still isn’t really designed for that. But it’s quite nice in some ways to be in what is not my usual space! And I’m really grateful to you for reaching out because this is the first evidence for me that the book physically exists, aside from one friend who posted a photograph of it on Twitter just before I completely bailed out of social media in order to try and remain relatively sane. So, it’s nice to feel that the connections that can arise by publishing a book can continue in different forms in this time and even make possible some things which weren’t possible—or were at least a lot less likely—before.

Figure 2: Corner of Peter’s workspace, with detail from Anna Boghiguian’s painting of the street on Geziret El-Manial, Cairo, where Anna and Peter were neighbours in the late 1990s.

And what you said about feeling human through being engaged with reading or watching actually resonates a lot with my feelings when I was working on the whole project: which for me is indivisibly made up of the film I made back in 2013 (The Uprising), the book I have just published, and also—just as vitally—all the invisible networks of roots and tendrils around them and which connect them to each other, and which are by far, for me who was in them, the larger part of the iceberg. For there was something about the insurrections that broke out across the Arab world in 2010-2011, and about the videos produced by their actors which, when I encountered them at the time they were being made, reconnected me with a sense of my own humanity. So, if the book serves any purpose, I would hope that it is one of reconnection—in a non-sentimental, non-simplifying kind of way—that mirrors some of what I experienced when watching and working with these videos the first time.

Figure 3: Still from The Uprising (2013) / YouTube video uploaded by Gigi Ibrahim, 24 March 2011.

Alex

I have gotten into the practice of reaching out to authors when I read a book that moves me. Usually just a short email of recognition and thanks. But in your case, I wanted more! I was writing voluminously in its margins as I was reading; I was so active and excited. I no longer really work on YouTube. But this isn’t because I’m not interested in its potential, or what we can learn about people, technology, activism, and video inside of and because of this corporate media behemoth. So, I didn’t just want to read you, I wanted to talk with you about people-made video, so many years after I had spent too much time in that very space. And I wanted to actively engage with you as a writer and thinker, because while our work shares an object, a political sensibility, a shared training in avant-gardist or formalist media traditions, our findings are often quite dissimilar. I’m excited to learn with you and I’m really thankful to you for your book. This is a review, a celebration, a conversation.

I thought we could start by you explaining the book and the larger project.

Figure 4: Front cover of The People Are Not an Image (Verso Books, 2020)

Peter

I think everything I do is part of my own learning process. So, I hope the book remains open-ended in its inquiry. Now that I am in some sense detached from the arguments I put forward – if only by the simple fact of the book being out there, in the world, in material form, and I cannot change it anymore – I can step back a little and look at them again.

The book grew out of making the film, The Uprising – a montage film made exclusively out of videos posted to social media in 2011-12 by the actors of the Arab revolutions. But the film too grew out of something else, because it was not originally intended to be “a film.” It became what it is through a series of decisions that were made over the years, and which were all oriented towards trying to help these videos reach as many people as possible. While I was working on the film, over two years of research and editing with my friend and partner in crime, Bruno Tracq, I was seeing lots of things that I couldn’t put in it and having lots of ideas that didn’t fit into the constraints that we had set. So, I began to write about these things in order to provide an outlet for everything that was bubbling. Over time that slowly grew into this book.

And there was also a more formal context that encouraged the choice to seek an outlet in writing: I was only able to do all that I did because I had, at a rather late age, entered a PhD program for which I had been awarded a very generous bursary. This meant I was able to give up other forms of gainful employment for a while and really just focus on my filmmaking and writing. I was doing a practice-based PhD, so as the written component, I was able to present a piece of writing that was more like a book than a traditional dissertation. I wanted above all to write something that could stand on its own, independently of the film, because I didn’t want the reception of the book to be conditioned by people’s reception of the film – I wanted it to be able to win its own audience, including among people who might not like, or might even be quite hostile, to the film itself. So, the book isn’t an attempt to explain the film, though I hope that it can provide a context which may lead some people to be able to see the film differently than they would have done without it.

In any case, the book and the film are driven by the same underlying invitation, which is that I want people to look at the videos produced by the actors of the Arab revolutions. I want people to actually take the time to see these videos and to form their own responses and reactions to them. I want to persuade people that it’s worth taking the time to engage with these images as an aesthetic proposition, not just a data point for social scientists. And I want to argue that both the videos themselves, and the act of posting them online, are worthy of our attention, whether we feel ourselves to be addressed by them directly, or less directly.

Alex

I am drawn to be in conversation with you in large part because you are doing work that I think of as in conversation or connection to mine: a practice-based engagement with contemporary political media.

You started this project by making a film, but your making was not disconnected to your writing or your PhD work. And that was not disconnected to a political project in which you seem deeply invested. Your orientation and practice as a media maker and writer invested in digital culture called to me because I don’t have many compatriots in a practice-based project itself rooted in a deeply felt and enacted political and theoretical engagement in the space of media. In my own PhD research in the eighties, I was making AIDS activist video with a VHS camcorder within my own activist community. My collective’s video activism (The Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise) became part of my doctoral research that itself evolved into my first monograph on activist media, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video (Duke 1995).

Figure 5: AIDS TV and screengrab from “We Care: A Video for Care Providers of People Affected by AIDS” (The Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise, 1990)

These linked meditated iterations—making, thinking, and writing—about activist media were embedded within the first decade of the ongoing AIDS pandemic in North America. And that raises my first question: what was your political stake and position in relation to the uprisings and their videos? And did that change through the period you were making the film, and then writing your book, that is through your praxis?

Peter

Perhaps what I am most conscious of, also coming out of other films that I’ve made, whether they were explicitly political or not, is that all of them extend for me out of something that one might call not simply an ethics, but also a politics of friendship. I’ve realized over time that one reason why I’m a lousy would-be professional filmmaker is that I don’t enjoy making films with people who are not or could not potentially become my friends. There has to be a sense of complicity, and of mutual play, which can possibly – but not certainly – open up on to a deepening sense of trust. So, I guess I see friendship in this context as both a politics, and an experiment – something that may not work out, a risk that has to be taken, and which is deeply imbricated with the eventual success or failure of the film. And for me, this is far more important than anything more rationally identifiable, like a conceptual or ideological alignment, or even some participatory protocol that is meant to safeguard against the abuse of power, but will probably, or even inevitably, fail.

Alex

I’m curious to know what led you to believe that you could be in an ethical friendship with these human beings, these video makers. My practice as a community-based activist video maker and theorist has led me to try to make video in communities in which I already reside. So, it’s not even friendship for me, it’s shared alignment in a known community. I made AIDS activist videos when I was an AIDS activist. I made a documentary about leftist understandings of media and the scale of political movements with and about my sister, Antonia, a well-known activist and writer in the United States during and about ending the Bush administration (Scale: Measuring Media Might, 2007). I understand making media where I live, and with those with whom I want to change the world, as a feminist ethics of documentary. So, do you want to talk about how potential friendship was a facet of your politics or practice of with these videos?

Figure 6: Flier for Scale: Measuring Might in the Media Age (digital video, 58 mins, 2007)

Peter

Perhaps the basic question is, why was I watching these videos in the first place? And the simple answer is that at the time when these revolutions broke out, a lot of my closest friends were living in these countries – were from there, had been born there – and I wanted to know what was going on with them.

My work on these videos was therefore one outcome of my own personal journey over the preceding twenty years. And there were two essential stages to that. The first was when I moved from the UK to live in Paris in 1992. I was there for five years, and by the time I left, essentially 90% of my time was spent among friends who were Algerian immigrants or the children of immigrants. At a certain moment, when I was beginning to struggle with the fact of being a foreigner in Paris, through a series of chance encounters, these people had – from within their own even more complex and conflicted situation – taken me in, and adopted me, as it were. There was one family in particular who gave me a sense of being at home, even though – and, perhaps, especially because – this was with and among people who were never going to really feel straightforwardly at home themselves. This was my first real encounter with structural racism, not as something analysed in a book, or implicated in my own relative privilege (“relative” as in “situated,” not “relative” as in “less than”), but as something directly impacting the people who were at the centre of my life. But it was also more than that – it was an experience of great generosity welling up out of the centre of that injustice, despite and beyond it. From these friends, I learned something important about being a human being which connected with and deepened things I already knew, if more obscurely, through my own family background, as someone who had grown up at one generation’s remove from the working class. And if I had to sum that up in one word, it would be, hospitality.

My friends in Paris were not all Algerian, of course. When my time in Paris ran out, I’d been working for a year or so on short-term contracts with UNESCO, where I’d met people from across the whole world, including most of the Arab region. And so, as I was beginning to think about leaving a city where I felt there was no professional future for me, and I didn’t have a clue about what to do with my life, an opportunity came up through an Egyptian friend to go and work there. I jumped at that opportunity. After all, I had spent several years writing documents for UNESCO about what was wrong with the way that “the West” dealt with other peoples and their cultures, but I’d never been outside Europe. And I thought, well, what if I’m all wrong about that? I should go and see!

So, I went to Egypt and lived there for three years, working at the English edition of the Al-Ahram newspaper, and that was also a deeply transformative experience for me, both personally and politically. Not least because Cairo in general, and the paper in particular, were a meeting point for people from well beyond Egypt: from Palestine of course, but also from Sudan, Zimbabwe, Ghana… what felt like a large part of the African continent. It was also a place that looked east, towards the Indian sub-continent and the rest of Asia, in a very different way from the way that Europe did. Which meant that when I finally went to India, I arrived there from Egypt – not just in the sense that that was where I got on the plane, but conceptually, too. This helped reconfigure my inner map of the world, not just intellectually, but also physically and intuitively. It helped me realise in my bones that there isn’t just one world, one map, but many, and that “my” map – the one I had grown up with – had no particular importance or priority, in and of itself.

Figure 7: Guy Fawks, Cairo, 9 October 2012 (march to commemorate the martyrs of Maspero). Photo: Peter Snowdon

After I came back to Europe in 2000, I spent much of the next decade travelling back to Cairo at every opportunity. It was Cairo that still felt like “home,” like the place where my most important, and most vital, friendships were. I put a lot of energy into maintaining that as best I could, despite the distance. So, in 2011, when the revolutions broke out, almost the first thing I did was go online looking for my friends.

Remember, in the first days of the Egyptian uprising, there was a concerted attempt by the regime to disrupt communications with the outside world. So, I couldn’t get in touch with anyone by email, and the telephone lines weren’t working. But many of my friends were journalists, as I had been when I lived in Cairo. I knew that if anyone had access to a satellite phone, it would be them. I might be able to find them online to see if they were safe, even if I couldn’t talk to them directly. Almost immediately, I fell down the rabbit hole that is social media in times of popular unrest. And at the bottom of the rabbit hole were not just many of my friends, who were, by and large, doing okay, but also all these people making videos. And suddenly, I was spending all my waking hours hanging out with these videos, and with the people who were making them, some of whom I knew personally, and some of whom I came to know, or at least be in contact with, through the online connections forming around these events.

A lot of this activity was sharing videos and talking about them, and that combination of circulation and discussion stuck with me. Everything I’ve done since is basically an attempt to enlarge (or recreate) the circle of that initial sense of residing in a community through video – a community of discourse and exchange that goes well beyond just looking at images, and includes many, many layers of displacement and non-coincidence.

Alex

Your words resonate with what draws me to social media as well. I became a theorist of the internet and internet video in the decades after my AIDS work because my media praxis has always been medium agnostic. I am not a theorist or maker of video or film or websites per se. Rather, I’m an activist and a human being who wants to be in community and change the world with like-minded people using whatever medium is at hand. Your “being human” in community across distance is particularly resonant to me, especially because I’ve been recently working on practices of media proximity, given the protocols of social distancing and the fact of fake news (fakenews-poetry.org).

Figure 8: Participants at the New Haven Fake News Poetry Workshop, one of 25+ held around the world from 2017-ongoing.

My current work on fake news and radical digital media literacy (including a 2021 book co-written with Nishant Shah, Really Fake! that blends out creative renderings of situated authentification through stories, poetry, photos, and dating, in its many senses, temporal and inter-personal) strives to be human together while not letting go of technology. Media suit or align with their people, struggles, and places. I appreciate how your work on vernacular video is situated in a specific local and temporal struggle—what became known as the Arab Spring—itself locally and differently experienced across the countries of the region, and the changing conditions of their struggles. You name here and with more detail in the book, how making video and then also talking about and sharing this is a powerful place for political empowerment, agency, and humanity making—well, I agree with you—and am pleased to learn about this in both its situated and distributed formats.

Peter

For me, too, these videos were never just about “video”. They were always about experimenting with the multi-layered nature of community via technologies that preserve or repurpose some of those layers in order to bring us together differently, even as they create new kinds and qualities of distance and absence. And that is also what we are doing “here” today – coming together differently to trace out yet another path, or at least one segment of what may become one, through these fields of presence and absence we call “media”.

––

Read the follow-up to the conversation here.

Improving the DOAJ metadata – Why and how

by: Xuan Zhao & Heather Morrison

Abstract

The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ, http://doaj.org/) is an essential world-wide open access service (16,134 journals listed, as of March 29, 2021), which promotes quality, peer-reviewed open access journals. The journals included can get higher and broader visibility. To make the most of this service, journal editors need to pay attention to the accuracy of their entries in the DOAJ metadata (journal-title, publisher information, location information, subject, language, URLs, etc.). This post aims to explain the benefits for journals of improving the quality of metadata and what journal editors can do. 

Our discussion is mainly based on recent research of the Sustaining the Knowledge Commons team and cites some other researchers’ findings. 

For journals, what are the benefits of improving the DOAJ metadata?

As detailed on the DOAJ website (DOAJ, https://doaj.org/apply/why-index/), there are five benefits for journals indexed in DOAJ, and accordingly, five reasons to improve the metadata: 

  1. “Reputation and prominence”

“DOAJ is the most important community-driven, open access service in the world and has a reputation for advocating best practices and standards in open access. By indexing your journal in DOAJ, its reputation and prominence will be enhanced.”

We assume that journals with accurate and precise entries can give a serious and active impression, helping them maintain the reputation. 

  1. “Standards and best practice”

“DOAJ’s basic criteria for inclusion have become the accepted way of measuring an open access journal’s adherence to standards in scholarly publishing. We can help you adopt a range of ethical and quality standards, making your journals more attractive publishing channels. DOAJ is committed to combatting questionable publishers and questionable publishing practices, helping to protect researchers from becoming trapped by unethical journals.”

As open access journals are listed in a quality standards system like DOAJ, it is important to make sure that their information is correct to distinguish them from the questionable journals undoubtedly. 

  1. “Funding and compliance”

“Open access publication funds often require that authors who want funding must publish in journals that are included in DOAJ. Indexing in DOAJ makes your journals compliant with many initiatives and programmes around the world, for example Plan S in Europe or Capes/Qualis in Brazil.”

With correct entries in metadata, the DOAJ journals can be more easily discovered by foundations, related programmes and organizations.

  1. “Discoverability and visibility”

“DOAJ metadata is free for anyone to collect and use, which means it is easily incorporated into search engines and discovery services. It is then propagated across the internet. If you provide us with article metadata for your journal, this will be supplied to all the major aggregators and the many research organisations and university library portals who use our widgets, RSS feeds, API and other services. Indexing your journal in DOAJ is likely to increase traffic to your website and give greater exposure to your published content. Levels of traffic to a journal website typically increase threefold after inclusion in DOAJ. Your journal’s visibility in search engines, such as Google, will improve.”

Indexing journals in DOAJ means they are more easily discovered and cited by other researchers. Correcting metadata will help raise the chances that people working in the same area will find the relevant research they need.

  1. “International coverage”

“Our database includes more open access journals from a diverse list of countries than any of the other major indexing services. We have a global editorial team via a network of Managing Editors, Ambassadors and volunteers, so we will do our best to offer local support in your language. We promise you that information about your journal will be seen around the world.”

The DOAJ journals are aimed at readers from all over the world and may be seen by people who are not proficient in the journals’ language. In this case, journal editors need to ensure the correctness of data entry so that readers can read with confidence. 

What’s more, a higher quality database will be more valuable for researchers and promote the entire OA ecosystem. Especially for services like university libraries, which tend to keep up with the latest content and take advantage of metadata corrections. 

In brief, keeping the entries of DOAJ metadata correct reinforces the advantages for journals mentioned above and benefits the users of DOAJ. 

As journal editors, what can we do?

As demonstrated in a study of the SKC (Zhao, Borges & Morrison, 2021), “as of January 5, 2021, only 30% of DOAJ journals have a ‘last update’ date within the previous year (2020)”, which means only 30% of DOAJ journals fully or partially updated their information in DOAJ system. To make the best use of DOAJ, journal editors should regularly check their entries to ensure that their data is correct and up to date. For example, if journal URLs are not kept up to date, an incorrect URL means, at best, that the journal cannot be found. Crawford (2016), in a study of DOAJ journals, found journals flagged that were as malware (or as containing malware) by Mal- warebytes, Windows Defender, McAfee Site Advisor or Office 2013. 

Most of the visible inconsistencies in the metadata are input errors or location errors (listed below). Most of the input errors are “small differences in punctuation and/or characters, extra spaces at the beginning and/or at the end”, as reported by SKC (Zhao, Borges & Morrison, 2021). Combined with the findings of Crawford (2016), we list the data to be modified by categories as follows:

  • Input error or location error in:

wrong column, journal title, special character, keywords, copyright information URL, plagiarism information URL, URL for journal’s instructions for authors, other submission fees information URL, preservation services, preservation service: national library, preservation information URL, deposit policy directory, persistent article identifiers, URL for journal’s open access statement, etc. 

  • Publisher name duplicates:

Extra space or short of space, minor detail (e.g. non-English character in one but not the other), minor difference in punctuations and/or characters (e.g. “Abant İzzet Baysal Üniversitesi” vs. “Abant İzzet Baysal University”), abbreviation in one but not the other (e.g. “Asociación Interuniversitaria de Investigación Pedagógía” vs. “Asociación Interuniversitaria de Investigacion Pedagogica (AIDIPE)”), etc.

  • “APC-charging journals that don’t clearly state the amount charged” (Crawford, 2016)

Sometimes it is hard to indicate “who is the publisher”. We list some situations below:

  • When there are branch publishers under one publisher, and all of them are recorded in DOAJ, especially when their journals’ websites do not have any clear indications ;
  • When a publisher has more than one active names (perhaps due to different sponsors of one publisher, or the nature of commercial publishers), but their journals’ websites do not have any clear indications ;
  • When journals changed their websites but didn’t renew the URLs in the DOAJ database;
  • Invalid URLs;
  • Unmatched publisher name/journal name and URLs.

DOAJ also provides article-level search and is working to encourage more journals to provide article-level metadata. It makes both the journal-level and article-level metadata available for anyone to download. (DOAJ, https://doaj.org/docs/public-data-dump/) Thus, it would be better if journal editors can ensure the correctness of the articles’ information. 

References

Crawford, W. (2016). Gold Open Access Journals 2011 – 2015https://waltcrawford.name/goaj1115.pdf

Directory of Open Access Journals. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from http://doaj.org/

Public data dump. Directory of Open Access Journals. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://doaj.org/docs/public-data-dump/

Why index your journal in DOAJ? Directory of Open Access Journals. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://doaj.org/apply/why-index/

Zhao, X., Borges, L., & Morrison, H. (2021). Some limitations of DOAJ metadata for research purposes. Sustaining the Knowledge Commonshttps://sustainingknowledgecommons.org/2021/02/10/some-limitations-of-doaj-metadata-for-research-purposes/

How and Why to Start a Meme Studies Research Network: A conversation with Idil Galip

As the co-editor of the upcoming INC Reader about critical meme research, you can imagine when I received an invitation to the Meme Studies Research Network I got really excited. Over 250 international and interdisciplinary researchers, artists and other meme enthusiasts are currently connecting over there. Which has been a blast, honestly. The main goal of the network is to collaboratively establish a meme studies canon, and offer researchers an index of resources that center memes as their main object of interest. As founder Idil Galip is also one of the contributors of the upcoming reader as well, I could not let the opportunity pass to have a chat with her about her favorite meme, how and why she started the network, about meme theory and her upcoming INC publication. 

First things first: what is your favorite meme currently?
‘This is like when people ask you what your favorite film is, it’s so hard to choose just one. I think my favorite of the moment is the Monké meme. It’s about going back to  the monkey life, leaving industrial life behind. We manifested this Cyberpunk reality that we were so obsessed about. This ‘apocalypse’ feels very bizarre though – not old school like you would expect, like you would read in a book. It makes no sense to me, but maybe that’s because we’re living through it. The pandemic, being a home office worker, has made work and private life merge. You can’t go out. People are selling NFT’s. It’s madness and it definitely affects our psychological stability. I dream of going into the wilderness and foraging mushrooms sometimes for sure. I also like really grotesque and bizarre memes without a caption. They are so far removed from the original image caption meme form, that it makes me feel special in a ‘oh I get it’ kind of way’.’ 

Tell me more about the network. Why did you start it?
‘I decided to come up with it during my PhD in Edinburgh. I work in a Digital Society cluster, but my topic is still a niche topic. When I told people I’m researching memes they would not be able to move forward from the initial surprise. ‘How did you come up with that?’ Well, I didn’t. There are a lot of people around working on this. I had to explain what a meme is over and over again. I wasn’t being challenged. I wanted to meet those people who were also working on memes in an academic setting.’ 

Sounds familiar. How did you start?
‘I put together a reading list, while writing my thesis. So I wanted to share those resources with people. I looked into meme studies but there was not a lot going on. So I put it on Twitter. I expected to get maybe 3 responses but there were a lot of people that were interested. Turned out, people felt as isolated as I felt. I wanted to connect all those people who sent me a DM who did not know each other yet.’

How did the network grow?
‘Initially there were 30, maybe 40 people interested in the network, who saw it on Twitter. Then people started telling their colleagues and friends about it. We shared it on a couple of mailing lists too, such as  [AIR-L], which is the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list, and [CULTSTUD-L], a cultural studies mailing list, where we got a lot of responses from. The list is still growing. Now, 5 months later there are over 250 people on the mailing list and around 100 people in the Discord channel. There are also 5 to 6 moderators behind me, who are PhD students like me. They help run the blog and help run our events.’ 

Events? Tell me more.
‘Our first event is on the 19th of April. It’s going to be about digital ethnography in memes and it’s a panel discussion with Gabriele de Seta, who is a very prolific and nuanced writer. There are going to be more events in the future and we will also host more casual hangouts on Here.fm too.’ 

What communication and research platforms does the network consist of and how do those work together?
‘The network exists out of the website, Twitter account, a newsletter, a blog, a monthly bulletin and a Discord channel. And the resource list, of course. Discord is the most important channel for us. This is where people can meet each other. I think it’s the future of communication.’

What about Slack?
‘Slack feels too neoliberal. Discord feels natively digital; like those old chat rooms I used to hang out in.’

A great aesthetic.
‘People were also interested in setting up a journal, which is a great idea for the future but it’s too soon. We don’t know each other that well yet. I feel like we need a couple of years to get our shit together. We need to build a hive mind of sorts. That’s why we started a blog, it’s more relaxed. Members can start building their ideas and if they don’t agree with them anymore a few years later that’s fine. It’s also easier to publish something right away, before a subject gets outdated again. The Bernie memes are a great example.’’ 

How do you keep people engaged?
‘Yeah, it’s difficult. I try to Tweet, but not too much. On Discord you have people who engage and who lurk. I try to ask questions and that often works but sometimes it’s awkward because it stays silent. Some people get nervous because they think that I run things, but I don’t. I want people to pick it up together.’

What are your plans for the future?
‘Getting some funding would be the first step. A small amount of cash would do wonders already because it would allow for me to actually pay people. A conference (a real one – not online) would be lovely as well.’ 

Do you have tips for researchers that want to start their own network in their own subject matter?
‘The most important thing is to not do something others are already doing – otherwise it’s unnecessary. You don’t want to split those who are interested up. That would go against the logic of a network. Unless it’s a niche maybe. Also, to attract people, you need a hook. For us it was the reading list, so many people were interested in it. And if you do have something, you need to move fast, so people don’t lose interest.’ 

So let’s talk about meme theory for a bit. What are you working on right now?
‘What is a meme? is a question that comes back in all my projects. I’ve been obsessed with the fact that I can’t define what a meme is. I read other definitions and they all just don’t feel right enough. I like to look at memes in different fields; on Instagram, on 4chan, on Reddit, etc.  I research these meme communities and on every platform there seem to be different rules. It’s an ontological question.’

So with memes, the medium seems to be the message?
‘I don’t know. I’m starting to think more and more that there are memetic periods. Sometimes I like to provoke and say that everything and nothing is a meme at the same time. I don’t see memes as a fun picture and a caption. It feels like maybe it doesn’t even have to be an image.”

What do you think the current state of the meme is right now, after the focus in meme studies seemed to be on Trump and the alt right movement?
‘A lot of people are focussed on these deviant men online. They cause real life horror and violence, and as a result there is some sort of policy related interest in memes at the moment. It’s an amazing subject but it has been put on the backburner a little bit. There is more attention for politics and subcultures beyond alt right now – the impact of influencer culture for instance. I think as researchers we should look at it the other way around; the way we communicate has become memetic in its core.’

How do you see the future of the meme?
‘The future of the meme is here. We are living in a meme future. I’m obsessed with NFT’s and digital art and memes. The entire blockchain entered the meme world from the finance world, from the outside. Are memes art? Or is art becoming memetic? The pandemic has had an impact too; like I said, people seem to have a memetic mode of communication.’

Something else. What’s your take on meme copyright, when authors want to add memes to their to be published essays?
‘I ask. Sometimes I use creative commons images for stuff. But for an essay I’m working on I wanted to use three memes from an Instragam meme artist, so I just slid into their DM and told them I was writing an abstract inspired by their work. Their response was so lovely; they said they hoped I would have fun with it. As for my PhD I obviously had to use memes. I decided to focus on an online community and Instagram and their memes have a strong aesthetic, where you can usually tell by who it is made. Because it’s their intellectual property I sent them messages. The best thing to do is be real with them and if they don’t want it then you can’t use it. Instagram memes are different from memes on Reddit or 4 chan, of course. If you find a meme that anyone could have made, you still have to do your best to find out who made it – that’s every researcher’s duty; to follow the memetic thread. It’s too easy to just say ‘oh it’s a meme and you can never know who made it’.’ 

And finally, you’re contributing to our upcoming INC reader about critical meme research. Can you give us a little scoop?
‘I’m a person who grew up on the internet. I saw a lot of objectionable content that you would not so easily come across now . The internet is grotesque. This grotesqueness is interesting to me. During my field work on Instagram I came across @todaywasmybirthday on Instagram – their work is both grotesque and nuanced. So I started following that aesthetic. In my essay I present a semiotic analysis of grotesque memes and try to answer the question of why we enjoy the grotesque so much.’

Thanks for the lovely chat, Idil! 

The upcoming INC Reader about critical meme research will come out in July this year. I will publish an essay about the ethics of meme copyright on the Meme Studies Research Network blog and Idil will be publishing on the INC blog as well, so keep an eye out.