This is the second of a three-part essay. Read the first segment here before continuing on.
Process and the Limitations of Allyship
When a door cracks open, allyship again enters the conversation. Allyship has been critiqued as patronizing and protective, an exemplar of white saviorism, something I will briefly explore later in the poem “Dear White Girl” by Layli Long Soldier.
In the months after the 2016 presidential election, and prior to the 2017 Women’s March, Laynie Brown compiled art that supported resistance through circulating e-mails. Solidarity Texts: Radical Re-Sisters is now housed online in Jacket2, and includes the original ephemera alongside critical essays written in response to the march—its problems and its successes.
I remember the Women’s March—I was not in Washington D.C., but instead in Helena, Montana. I remember the somewhat unexpected collision of feminisms, the groups of friends and families marching, the homemade signs and banners, the brightness of the snow and the auspiciousness of sunshine, the pickup truck touting a confederate flag that circled those of us marching, and the majority white turn-out. I remember the mainstream media’s embrace of “pussy hats” without a recognition of gender politics, which thereby erased transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and so further perpetuated the violence and discrimination of heterosexism. I remember my friend dropping me off at my apartment in Missoula later that evening. Beyoncé was stuck in my head, and I remained unsure if what I marched for was of shared concern with those I marched beside.
The Women’s March was, in some ways, a reckoning for contemporary feminism. It revealed who—on a national platform—was heard and who was silenced, which bodies were protected and which remained unseen and unaccounted for. In her critical essay, “Begin Again,” Mia You writes of bodies in public space interacting through “[a] constant negotiation (and renegotiation) regarding their positioning next to one another.” To begin again might invite notions of a clean slate via erasure, or intentionally de-politicizing spaces; however, You cites Gertrude Stein’s insistence on “beginning” as instead an embrace of process. You continues,
Perhaps it’s remarkably pessimistic, but right now this defiant, restless “continuous present” is the only bearable future we can imagine, and it’s better than what we have. Present, after all, is also an imperative. The object is left open: to present ourselves, to present the world we imagine, to present the person next to us and the world they imagine that we could not. Be present. We set everything into motion, our end is disruption, and we begin again and again.
Whether marching in public space, or signing a Change.org petition that is circulating online, we are negotiating and renegotiating privilege, presence, visibility, interdependency, and solidarity. What would “solidarity” look like in the aftermath of the Women’s March if we had not had the opportunity to reflect laterally—through shared anecdotes, photos, and op-eds—and so deconstruct, sympathize, and further engage? Would the Women’s March have the same momentum and mass if it was unable to organize cross-continentally through the Internet, present live streams and on-the-ground documentation? The process that Stein and You advocate for is kindred to the presentism of multispecies ethnologist and feminist Donna Haraway in Staying With the Trouble: “I am not interested in reconciliation or restoration […] but I am deeply committed to more modest possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together.” The ability to participate in wide-ranging discourse online is certainly a prerequisite to establishing the kind of ethical relations that exist at the heart of a democratic and partisan society, cross-movement solidarity, and a more inclusive historical perspective—but what is the catch?
In a conversation about web technology a few years ago, a professor told us, “to be a presentist means to go retrograde.” In other words, our presence is coupled with our digital footprint. In Googling synonyms for access, I am informed that the words that may be confused with access are assess and excess. With the privilege of access, we are responsible for assessing the excess; because there is no clean slate.
I was surprised when my iPhone alerted me that my storage was full immediately after I had programmed a new phone. How could it be full if I had only a handful of photos and videos saved, alongside a couple of iMessage conversations? I learned my storage has less to do with the iPhone’s hard drive, but the amount of storage space available on my iCloud account. This service is owned by Apple Inc., and I had been unknowingly backing-up text conversations, photos, and documents onto the Cloud for years. As it turns out, every owner of an Apple ID is gifted 5GB of iCloud storage, like a parcel of land, in order to sync account information across devices. Even if we delete the information we share online, it is still stored as data, because once we “share,” we rescind ownership. These policies are outlined in the terms and conditions on websites like Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter, which renders information available to the NSA. For example, a Facebook user must request that Facebook deletes their account permanently, and Google can keep information indefinitely and use it however they decide. YouTube might not allow a video to be visible, but it still exists on the servers. Android phones are able to listen to conversations and record audio without asking phone owners’ permission. According to a columnist on Consumer Reports, in March 2017, net neutrality and FCC privacy guidelines were jeopardized when the House and Senate voted to allow companies to collect and sell their user’s browsing data. A month later, NBC and other news outlets reported that President Trump had officially signed the legislation, and in doing so, redacted the privacy rules that formerly required Internet providers acquire consent before selling browsing history and personal information; these rules had been recently established under Obama.
During COVID, many groups of people have taken to Zoom, a Cloud platform for video and audio conferencing for at-home work and socializing. The website’s privacy practices have been called into question recently, after the platform accidentally leaked photos and e-mail addresses of its users, and meetings and conferences are said to be frequently hacked (or Zoom-bombed)—sometimes by pornographic hate speech and threatening language. This is because they are apparently not end-to-end encrypted as the platform initially claimed to be. Zoom has also been caught collecting massive amounts of user’s data to sell to advertisers without consent.
As I write this, White House science advisers have predicted there will 100,000 to 240,000 deaths due to the virus in the coming months. Since prevention is dependent on the behaviors of the public, the lives that are protected are those with the privilege of limited contact, shelter, access to wi-fi for updated information, and the resources to reduce exposure and maintain comfort. In “The Necropolitics of Covid-19,” Christopher J. Lee writes, “The power to dictate who may live has been outsourced and increasingly privatized, available only to those who can afford it.” Lee notes how the pandemic is more often described as an economic crisis, and its fiscal impact is more widely debated than the lives at stake. Lee continues, “A word on economy: if this necropolitical landscape has largely remained invisible until now, it is because the spectacle of global capitalism has also concealed this political dispensation.”
As someone who lives alone with a government paycheck and health insurance, am I refusing to confront my own power, or to investigate truer manifestations of allyship by simply posting about the crisis? And by publicly reprimanding the actions of those in power, am I absolving myself from my own position in the structures of domination? Like the Women’s March, this virus is a reckoning, but at the cost of whose lives? Haraway’s wish to “stay with the trouble” echoes Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s objection, “I don’t want to be ‘healed.’ I want to have processed hurt and pain to the point where I can speak back those words, and harness the power of fear, hatred, and love into sustained mobilization—to the point where [the accumulated oppressions of the nation-state] don’t control me, but they are experiences I can draw on when it’s useful to do so.” According to Simpson, since colonization, Indigenous peoples’ interest in settler recognition has implicitly honored the Euro-centrist paradigm, wherein the white, colonial subject determines the value of any “X.” Against this logic of co-optation, Simpson argues for Indigenous peoples to re-shape activism in favor of resurgence politics, which is defined as self-actualizing a vibrant indigenous present without the approbation of settler colonialism. Indigenous resurgence politics begin with a refusal of the prevailing normative-discursive environment. In essence, resurgence politics is conditional to the acknowledgement that systematic oppression manufactures individual worth. Allyship, in this framework, can be defined as an ongoing praxis contingent upon positioning oneself beside another, and thereby offering aid and accepting generative refusal when necessary.
Despite the impressions left behind by avatars, and the presumed facelessness or disembodied presence afforded by a handle, an online presence has bodily implications. A subject-object dichotomy of people and web technologies may conceptualize differences in falsely binary terms. There is an ontological connection that muddies this presumed distance—social media infiltrates our embodied existence as well as our cybernetic identities. In the era of social media, who we are is curated, formed, and reformed through the reproduction of experience as “content.” On social media sites, affirmation through “likes” and followers becomes the currency and users are commodities. When we allow ourselves to become collectible or visible on a surface level as objects rather than actants, and we assign discrete value based on one another’s portrayal, search history, and connections, we give biopower to companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Furthermore, how do we materially help every Black or oppressed person we consume or follow online? With the privilege of access, how does one justify inaction or unawareness to the necropolitical reality of capitalism? Especially when, as Noble points out, Black women are facing diasporic labor conditions in the process of raw-mineral extraction for the continued manufacturing of computer and mobile phone hardware. Does the saturation (as mentioned in the first part of this essay) incrementally map our losses? If discourse can move laterally and offer various points of entry, then why not assistance or relief? If unsure, I offer another opportunity to begin again.
Disability justice activists prove that ethical relation is, in fact, possible. Early on in Care Work, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha quoted Vancouver’s Radical Access Mapping Project, which states, “Able-bodied people: if you don’t know how to do access, ask disabled people. We’ve been doing it for a long time, usually on no money, and we’re really good at it.” Of course, Romily Alice Walden posts on Instagram at the beginning of the nation-wide order for shelter-in-place, “Where are all the articles centering the wisdom of sick, disabled and chronically ill people who have been living in isolation forever and creating beautiful powerful magical lives despite being totally disregarded by normative culture? At a time when our experience and expertise should be centered, there is, as expected, a near total erasure of our existence.”
The work of disability justice activists to provide care via online platforms is a decades-old practice, and their lives and livelihoods depend on it. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha defines “care webs,” an alternative to the capitalist, and often abusive or demoralizing, tradition of paid attendant care. As resurgence politics denies collective redemption for Indigenous peoples through the fallacy of cooperation within colonialism, “crip made access” upends assumptions of charity and gratitude implicit in a system of care that disavows the agency of the crips themselves. It is “access made by and for disabled people only, turning on its head the model that disabled people can only passively receive care, not give it or determine what kind of care [they] want.” Care webs may or may not include non-disabled peers and aides; regardless, they work through “solidarity not charity—of showing up for each other in mutual aid and respect.” These webs, as Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, were organized early-on through web-based platforms including Facebook, Google Docs/Calendar, WordPress, etc. She speaks of several, including Sick and Disabled Queers, a Facebook group that eventually spanned the whole of North America. SDQ offered shared knowledge, crowdsourcing for rent and medical bills, emotional support and advice, med-sharing and life support, and accessibility tools to improve cross-disability awareness.
Often, Instagram allows activists who are privy and have privilege to attract a following and earn hyper-visibility, or even celebrity status. How then will ables rely on a few tokenized figures to define disability, access, and mutual aid, rather than seek out diverse sources of information? I have witnessed both the unmatched support offered from ableist communities as well as the unchecked demands placed on disabled individuals due to this paradox of visibility for disabled figures, and marginalized figures in general, on public platforms. Both examples undermine the potentials of allyship and limit the opportunities for being beside one another, as a collective. I believe it is important not only for users of web-technology and social media, but designers, to generate more egalitarian, socially productive, and secure means and mediums in our renegotiation of space.
Multiplicity, Anatomization, and Agency Through Objectification
Marcel Maus was a French-Jewish anthropologist known for his studies in magic, sacrifice, ritual, and gift exchange. He is most well known for his essay, The Gift (1925), in which he argues that gifts are not freely given, but woven into a histories of reciprocal exchange. In a gift economy, objects are not private property, but extensions of one’s self. The gift is invariably bound to the identity of the giver. Therefore, a gift transcends the divide between spiritual and material, because the act of giving reinforces a mutual interdependence between the giver and receiver. This is different from a capitalist economy, wherein the giver and the receiver are not socially obligated to return the act. The question that propelled Maus’s inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to give it back?” Of course, the power is the crystallization of oneself in the object. This means that objects are imbued with a vibrant materiality, an animacy, and a spirit.
The Maussian inquiry offers a fascinating reframing of the objects of web-technology, as well as their ability to objectify. Charis Thompson is a Professor of Sociology and author of Ontological Choreography: Agency Through Objectification in Infertility Clinics. Thompson elaborates on an ontological connection between technology and the self, however her work focuses on reproduction technology. “Ontological choreography” is a term she formed to describe the functional trails of mutual referentiality between objects and agents of various kinds, and choreography is the coordinated relationship between both. Ontological choreography could be likewise applied to web technology. (Tangential to this, it is interesting, and somewhat apt, to compare the Internet with reproductive technologies; both of which are now directly involved with livelihood, personhood, and re/production itself.) Thompson begins her work by citing Maussian anthropological inquiry into culturally specific configurations of the self. As I mentioned, this inquiry discusses the relation between humans and objects, or things, as it now stands at the center of contemporary science and technology studies. Thompson re-frames this inquiry to incorporate ontology, gender, and the false oppositions imposed by a subject/object binary:
There has been an interdisciplinary revival of the Maussian anthropological inquiry […] In this work, the exploration of the multiplicity of selves–– the different kinds of faces or personae or social roles we routinely switch among as we go about our daily lives—has opened up the possibilities of meaningful conceptions of the self that are not tied to the essential unity of the self.
Thompson is arguing for a non-essentialism in recontextualizing Maus’s inquiry. Our bodies and social webs are multi-faceted and cyborgian. We are not just using web-technology, or being used by it, but entwined in a subtle coordination of exchange. My profile is not a perfect distillation of who I am as a person, nor is that possible. My digital footprint, if anything, does not solely track my concerns and interests, but also the imitative, contradictory, and ironic elements of my usage. This is visible in our various handles, multi-user threads, forums, usernames, and range of participation online, and these culturally specific configurations can be used to re-frame values and relationships.
One could argue that a “like” on an online platform is akin to a gift and signals a cycle of mutual exchange similar to that described by Maus. However, an unreciprocated exchange—e.g., the decision not to follow back or react, a shadowbanned account, or a non-consensually shared image—may destabilize a user’s sense of privacy or worth. Within a capitalist economy, a gift—or freely given identity-based information—often does not reinforce interdependence, but a politics of recognition. Within this politics of recognition, many users compete for visibility driven by market trends, while racist software, corporate interests, and surveillance systems co-opt their efforts for profit. Thompson’s research insists that agency must be pursued through objectification to destabilize such hierarchical dynamics. This can be done by artfully choreographing relationships with the objects of technology, including how we offer ourselves through them.
Amalia Soto (pseudonym Molly Soda) is a conceptual performance artist, often called a DIY digital artist, who works almost exclusively through the Internet to produce and showcase her work. Soda formed her early online persona through Tumblr. Her digital art ranges from GIFs; interactive spells to navigate technology (Virtual Spellbook, 2015); highly-critiqued YouTube makeup tutorials; durational performances (such as Inbox Full in 2013, wherein Soda reads her entire Tumblr Inbox); a video mini-series where every character is played by Soda (Tween Dreams, 2011); leaked nude selfies; a video game adventure into the nostalgia of surfing (Wrong Box, 2019); and gallery installations that place the viewer in the center of a fictional bedroom where they interact through laptops with open videos and files curated by Soda. Soda’s “unmade-but-made confessionalism” mirrors popular lowbrow “sad girl” Internet fame and, in doing so, considers the consequences for whoever is behind the camera as well as the consuming public. Her work provides insight on this Maussian inquiry, since Soda’s characters become, on the one hand, a pseudo-transparent showcase of the subjective, contradictory personae that is “Molly Soda”; and on the other hand, Soda becomes a speculative, multi-embodied representation of many females.
The performative nature of Soda’s work is pertinent to the earlier question—how do we self-designate our identities online, as opposed to allowing the external influences of web-platforms to sculpt them? Or to what extent is this even possible? As Soda says in an interview with The Creative Independent, “The internet is funny because we think everyone’s being vulnerable. We’re supposed to be intimate online, but obviously, we’re curating ourselves, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We’re creating these mood boards of our lives.” Soda is strategic; and while she remains loyal and participates through various platforms, the artist simultaneously opens a window for viewers to critique the culture from outside of itself, via galleries and exhibitions. Thompson articulates this oppositional stance through her research on reproductive technologies:
The oppositional tension between objectification and agency alienates us from technology: operationalization renders us as mechanistic discrete body parts; naturalization turns us into objects of experimentation and manipulation; bureaucratization turns us into institutional cogs; and we are hoodwinked by our epistemic disciplining. It is the ubiquitous possibility of this alienation, resulting from synecdochal breakdown, that, in part, explains our customary ambivalence towards the benefits of technology.
This anatomization of agency could just as easily be used to describe social media technology. The breakdown of oneself into socially legible parts may leave us, paradoxically, alienated. Through our exposure, confession, public sharing, and further use of these platforms, we forego agency at the expense of viewership, and thus embrace objectification. We are never wholly visible; rather, we are seen in discrete, commodifiable fragments. My personal use of social media is exponentially greater when I am insecure or in need of validation. I believe that Soda’s work is an example of how, through digital art, web users may perform various personas with intention, and, in doing so, one may pursue agency through objectification.
Alternatively, young activists may enact another form of agency online via politicizing personal experience, as Saad demonstrates. This form of content generates nuanced and culturally aware narratives of oppression that promote the legibility of persons experiencing any number or type of oppressions. One of the best examples of a shared pedagogy for identity politics online is through Leste Magazine’s Instagram (a.k.a @lestemagazine) “takeover,” where artists and activists are given full leadership to publicize their art, politics, crowdfunds, personal experiences, or aesthetics on Leste’s profile for the viewership of tens of thousands of followers during the duration of a week. Through their takeover, Leste is able to represent culturally specific configurations of the self united under the umbrella of their account, which is also connected to a reader-funded and ad-free publication. However, most show a preference for following single-user accounts, which allow for intimate (albeit often one-sided) and ongoing relationships.
One good example of this, apart from Molly Soda, is the “crip” artist and activist Sharona Franklin (@star_seeded, @paid.technologies, and @hot.crip). Franklin’s multiple accounts highlight the artistic (decorated herbal jelly cakes), personal (selfies and health updates), and political (memes) aspects of her public image. In Spring 2019, Franklin was contacted by Gucci. The company intended to hire Franklin to create her sculptural jelly cakes for their “Cruise 2020” campaign, but as soon as she disclosed her background and needs to Gucci, the fashion brand ghosted Franklin and commissioned one of their stock artists to reproduce her work instead. In a recent article published in ArtNews, Franklin stated that she believes “once they researched her online, they backed out after discovering her disability and her activist-oriented work, which has involved calling out brands for co-opting the aesthetics of medical treatments and accessibility.” Although Franklin signed an official Non-Disclosure Agreement, Gucci denies her accusations and instead defends that they regularly contact a variety of artists during the planning stages of a campaign and decided to move forward with another artist. The artist selected in lieu of Franklin has worked on prior campaigns with the company and produced nearly-identical sculptural cakes but demonstrates no previous work in the medium. Ironically, Gucci has recently launched the #GucciChangemakers initiative to highlight diverse and underprivileged artists. As they misguidedly claim through an Instagram promotional video, “We are nothing without community.” Franklin responded to their lack of follow-through by calling out the fashion brand on Instagram. Her response generated an overwhelming demonstration of support from followers demanding that Franklin be fairly compensated for her time and creative ideas. Franklin’s display of agency through objectification cannot be misread. As soon as Franklin shared Gucci’s scandal, she reprimanded the art world for perpetuating discriminatory practices that benefit able-bodied artists within its corporate hegemony. Followers began to share Franklin’s posts and stories and demanded reconciliation. Franklin may have reclaimed agency, but for artists involved in social justice who were sympathetic and responsive, is there an ongoing praxis? The sheer number of supporters was certainly staggering. In short, though, I wonder how many of these able-bodied followers who shared Franklin’s story critically engaged with their own positionality. For those of us consuming content freely-given by marginalized artists and activists, we ought to consider what reciprocity looks like beyond a “like” or a “follow.”
Decolonizing the Textual Body
Layli Long Soldier refuses allyship within a politics of recognition. WHEREAS (2017), written about what it means to be Lakota and in response to becoming a mother, addresses white saviorism in “Dear White Girl,” a poem written in response to a young girl’s note requesting U.S. citizens demand the government “pay reparations” to Native American people.
Her note was posted in the comment section of a New York Times article about the federal sequestration of funds from reservation programs. “Dear Fourteen-Year-Old Girl, I want to write. The government has already ‘formally apologized’ to Native American people on behalf of the plural you.” Long Soldier, or the speaker, continues to describe a visit to the Indian Health Services to repair a tooth, but due to limited funds available under the treaty, the only option was to pull the tooth. “I honor your response and action, I do. Yet the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back. The root, gone.” Long Soldier undermines settler recognition and instead poses a turn inwards, towards a space of reflection as a colonized subject. She begins the collection, “Now / make room in the mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses.” Here, the repetition of grasses is a mimetic stand-in for the land; and the land is pedagogy—as Simpson writes—while the body is text, tentacular superimpositions. She writes in the poem “Four,” “In the plunge we fear for the falling, we buckle to wonder: What man is expendable?” Or, to paraphrase queer and literary theorist Judith Butler: Who counts as a subject? The pedagogy of the land is experiential, felt, moved through, embodied. As Simpson writes,
By far the largest attack on Indigenous Knowledge systems right now is land dispossession, and the people that are actively protecting Nishnaabewin are not those at academic conferences advocating for its use in research and coursework, but those who are currently putting their bodies on the land.
Long Soldier’s connection with place is reinforced in “Steady Summer,” when the speaker states, “I don’t trust nobody but the land.” By interpreting the textual body as intertwined with the corporeal, i.e. the dispossessed body of the Native subject, we can better contextualize Long Soldier’s use of appropriation. As she writes, “If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in the footnote or blazing in the title. / Where in the body do I begin.” Language as a force of dispossession is what, per Butler, determines bodies to be either “intelligible or unintelligible.” The process of socializing causes us to be vulnerable by definition, and so we continue to propagate systems of evaluation and re-affirmation valuing image (recognition politics) over relationships (resurgent politics).
Therefore, decolonizing the body becomes the first step in radical Native resurgence. For Long Soldier, this was shown by decolonizing the text, acknowledging a distrust in language. The breaking of words in the first half of the book represents this in action through dismantling and multiplying (Anglo, settler) meanings to reorient sense-making around each word. She does this in her poem “Diction”: “inflecti / on,” “stand /ards,” “accept / ability,” and “enunci / ation.” Words are fragmented and aerated to deconstruct dominant discourse and interrogate legibility. Long Soldier subverts colonial thinking by implying that space is central to the word itself, or in other words, the fragmentary nature of language becomes its latent objective.
Long Soldier enacts this subversion throughout her collection, constantly reinventing her means through craft or an anti-craft. In one of her “Whereas Statements,” she writes, “WHEREAS re- / solutions’s an act / of analyzing and re- / structuring complex / ideas into simpler / ones so I place / a black bracket / on either side of / an [idea] I cordon it /to safety away / from national re- / solution the threat / of re- / ductive [thinking]:.” The poem following branches off from her lyrically didactic explanation in the prior as she incorporates the brackets into an appropriated treaty; “Whereas Native Peoples are [ ] people with a deep and / abiding [ ] in the [ ], and for millennia Native Peoples have maintained a powerful [ ] connection to this land.” The bracketed idea holds space in protest against reductive thinking. The removed words return, out of context, floating and separate, still bracketed, several pages later (“[spiritual],” “[belief],” “[Creator],” “[spiritual]”). The designated separation sanctifies these terms, protects them from the patronizing, imposed context.
I think about Simpson’s question, “why is the colonizer our mirror?” The mirroring in Long Soldier’s text is an act of translation. She writes in the colonizer’s language but reflects back the asymmetrical power relations. As Simpson writes, “Because the colonizer will always reflect back to us what the state wants to see […] But they certainly do not reflect back anything that has to do with land, sovereignty, or my power.” As Long Soldier clarifies through her formal inventions, the settler mentality only recognizes “Indian tribes in their boundaries.” Long Soldier re-writes the national resolution and the aforementioned text beside and within an outlined rectangle. The words themselves compress and the typography shrinks as they enter the space of the rectangle. Long Soldier visually codes the alterity until the reader is forced to enter the boundary alongside the words. I am reminded of Layla Saad. The distance, a space of a single click. In this case, the white gaze is permitted. The white reader is asked to be uncomfortable with proximity, refusal, and enforced boundaries. Long Soldier is asking for a stray tentacle, she is asking us to feel into the divisions that designate Native populations vulnerable by definition. All the while, requesting us to make room in the mouth for grassesgrassesgrasses, the flourish of an Indigenous inside. In this sense, poetic manuscripts—like Long Soldier’s—rupture the neocolonial authority in an act of generative refusal. To interpret becomes, like land in its pedagogy, experiential in its nature.
The third and final segment of this essay will be published tomorrow, April 24th. You can view a Works Cited page for the full essay here.
Featured image: “Untitled” by Taylor Partee.