Social media, for social justice

On Erin Wunker's 'Technological Subjects'

Note: above, a video of Erin Wunker giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Lori Emerson responds to Wunker’s talk in the essay that follows. 


The moment I sat down to write this response to Erin Wunker’s talk “Technological Subjects: Framing McLuhan in the Twenty-First Century” delivered at the November 2014 Avant Canada conference, I caught myself beginning by half-consciously composing tweets instead of carefully crafted, scholarly sentences: “wishes she could time travel back to nov. ’14 as she reads @erinwunker’s provocative piece on McLuhan & social media.” No, no … how about “grateful for the chance to time-travel back to nov. ’14 — watching & responding to @erinkwunker’s smart talk on McLuhan.” And so on. The point is partly that, precisely as Wunker points out in her talk, “technologies create our relating and they do so quickly and profoundly,” and we are all perpetually in the midst of shaping and being shaped by digital media writing technologies. The point is also that we’re now living through a strange, accelerated, emergent, and flexible kind of temporality, one that makes it possible for me to watch videos of conference talks from over a year ago and feel as if I were in fact able to attend this conference I yearned to go to; to feel as if I were a respondent for one of the papers, and even to write a response to a paper that is, first, a response via Marshall McLuhan to work by photojournalist Rita Leistner that is also a response to McLuhan via the social media platform Instagram, and that is, second, a response via Leistner’s work to a particularly troubling period in time on Twitter (that continues to this day). The circularity, the extent to which we move back and forward in time, reading ourselves into and out of each other and into and out of media, is astounding. And, if I’m understanding Wunker’s paper correctly, the circularity is precisely the point. There’s a porousness now — between us, between us and the media we’re enmeshed in on a daily basis, and between us and institutional structures — that is not only difficult to see and track but that also demands we see ourselves as (sorry) always already impure and implicated.

Let me see if I can be more methodical and less infected by this circularity in my response to Wunker and in laying out what I see as so important in her talk.

She begins by talking about how she proposed a beautifully simple paper for this conference — one that would read particular instances of photojournalism through McLuhan — and about how, in the end, she could not write this paper because the complex reality of the time prohibited such a straightforward analysis. From there, her talk shifts to a discussion of the relevance of McLuhan’s dictum that “all new technologies bring on the cultural blues, just as the old ones evoke phantom pain after they have disappeared” to, first, understand the tension between nostalgia for the old and celebration of the new in Leistner’s Instagram photos of her time spent embedded with the United States Marine Corps, First Battalion, Eighth Marines. Leistner has written that even at the time of taking these iPhone photos she felt as if she were “photographing a memory that wasn’t a memory [she] actually had.” Wunker echoes this sentiment when she describes the strange collapse that exists on Instagram between fiction and reality, past and present, subject and object; she says these photos don’t capture an object so much as they act as poetic, McLuhanesque probes into the difficulty of tracing inside and outside, figure and ground, each a part of a “resonating relationship.”

But the most provocative turn in Wunker’s talk comes when she shifts her discussion of photojournalism via Instagram and McLuhan to that other, only apparently text-based social media platform: Twitter. After observing that Twitter functions much like a photographic image generator in its supply of a never-ending stream of image-texts fit into a rapid succession of regular, rectangular rolling snapshots, she reminds us of the McLuhan dictum she opened with to consider the following: in the wake of the latest round of cultural blues brought on by the misogynist backlash against feminism that’s made itself most visible through vile hashtags such as #gamergate, #antifeminist, #feminazi, #sjw, #cuck (and I don’t recommend researching these hashtags too thoroughly), what constitutes an effective intervention? Is any attempt on Twitter to thwart further gender- or race- based violence by appropriating hashtags or staging crowd-sourcing projects only an enactment of yet more cultural blues? If Leistner’s photographs are the ideal, images self-consciously poised at the boundary of any number of resonating relationships, what might be the equivalent on Twitter?

After listening to Wunker’s talk, I think one solution she points to — simply and brilliantly echoing Donna Haraway’s work on “Situated Knowledges” from the late 1980s — is that perhaps we should concern ourselves less with tit-for-tat tactics and more with situating ourselves on social media, as beings utterly entwined with social media. Taking account of the way we exceed any boundary is a strategy that does not naively limit itself to trying to win an unwinnable debate at the level of pure content, but instead disrupts the entire structure supporting such “debate” by operating on a more wide-seeing register where form and content, medium and message, sender and receiver are constantly shaping and informing and implicating each other. As Haraway herself puts it, if we have, finally, “no clear and distinct ideas,” then our work instead is to track how the technologies we use are themselves “skilled practices” which should in turn lead us to ask ourselves: “How to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field?” If we can answer these questions, maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a cure for the cultural blues.