VSW Day Two: Images [Thinking]

[Day Two, Part 1 of 2]

It seems productive for me to break my blogging up into two parts for each day, as this workship is asking us to both immerse ourselves in the field of cultural criticism AND develop our own approaches to doing cultural criticism. [Thinking] is where I’ll think through some of the questions raised by the readings and the overall field of digital cultural criticism. [Doing] is where I’ll trace my work building out a layered, digital exploration of the Evangeline myth. I’ll also say, as we touched on this morning, I don’t see the thinking and the doing as separate tasks but it does help to break up my work into parts and also create more manageable blog posts. My goal is to weave them together on Friday into a cohesive plan moving forward.

I’ll begin by returning back to an idea I focused on yesterday: “everyone’s a critic.” Today, I have a new perspective to add to the mix:

And, relatedly and perhaps equally important, online communication platforms have democratized judgement…Now anyone with a blog or social media account can sound their opinion, on a work of art or anything at all, in what’s been called “vernacular criticism.” Significantly, these are corporate-controlled platforms, timed to instantaneity, that most often trade in the quick and off-the-cuff. With the old chestnut “everyone’s a critic” truer than ever, judgement, it seems, is hyperinflated. Judgement has flooded the market. Opinions no longer hold the same currency. So what is the role of the critic?

Anya Ventura, “Slow Criticism: Art in the Age of Post-Judgment,” http://temporaryartreview.com/slow-criticism-art-in-the-age-of-post-judgement/.

Her answer: “to attend-by-proxy for the public.” This attendance, to Ventura, must be slow. It must reject the speedy expectations of art critics, and instead reintegrate a deep subjectivity into art criticism rather than ascribing market value through quick judgment. To embrace this slowness, Ventura argues, rejects the entire market logic that art and its critics are bound within and has the potential to return us to this gift economy, “an economy of reciprocity and mutual exchange.” I am particularly drawn to the possibilities for slowness, for patient consideration, in teaching as outlined by Jennifer Roberts. As Roberts notes, this not only creates a deeper engagement in the analysis at hand but can work to remind students that the pasts we study existed in a different temporality, not only in relation to ourselves but in the rhythm and pace of daily life for our historical subjects.

Ventura acknowledges that economic realities inhibit this kind of criticism, but gestures toward new platforms and alternative funding models for cultural criticism. As all kinds of intellectual and cultural work is being undervalued and defunded, I am interested to learn more about these spaces and how they can monetize creative work. One thing I’ve come to learn about the world of digital humanities is the constant balancing act between doing good work and being paid for it. With ever-shrinking grant funding options, contingent positions becoming the norm in academia, and a general disinterest in expert opinions (back to the idea of what democratization of the digital age really means), these DH projects often take much more time than they provide in compensation (whether thats monetary or as part of your academic dossier). This has been another limitation of the transformative potential of DH: while we seek ways to decolonize archives or reimagine relationships between the past and the public, we are still materially bound by the same capitalistic system we are trying to dismantle, or at least critique. These projects require time and money, and the cycle continues.

A related question raised by our workshop leader Michael Kramer is what might a Cajun-informed understanding of cultural criticism look like? More specifically, how might this impact our understanding of the web? I frequently revisit these DH origin questions, directed by work like Kramer’s on connections between folklore and technology, or work by scholars like Angela Haas on the connections between Native American wampum and hypertext. However, I have not thought to do this thought experiment in the context of my own work. I’ll be playing with this idea over the next few days, but some initial thoughts are in order now.

There are certain characteristics that come to mind when thinking of what it means to be Cajun: family-oriented, adaptable/resilient, joyful, creative (in culture and industry), connected to the land, superstitious, protective, celebratory, tradition-oriented. Like most American ethnic groups, many of these elements have been lost or interrupted by assimilationist policies and the impact of modern technology. However, what I continue to find is a more complicated relationship between Cajuns and technology. This is a group that fell under the anthropological/folkloric gaze, which tried to freeze their culture and traditions in a static past as Cajun communities rambled their way into modernity. However, this does not reflect the full reality of the story. It’s like Larry Levine said: “Folklorists might have been purists; the folk rarely were.”

While the original Acadian exiles adapted to the new landscape of South Louisiana through farming, trapping, and fishing, these twentieth century Cajuns that I examine (who I call cultural brokers and are, importantly, white and upwardly-mobile) adapted their culture and lifeways to the new landscape of technology available to them. In fact, they used these technologies to perpetuate their own culture and resist a total homogenization of their communities. At the same time, they quickly took advantage of the commercial opportunities these technologies provided. Radio stations aired commercials in Cajun French and broadcast live music out of local bars and dancehalls; local recording studios put out un-ironic albums of traditional Cajun music played by men in modern suits posed in traditional Cajun homes; regional television stations aired Cajun Bandstand alongside American Bandstand and delivered the morning news in French. In fact, the geographical name Acadiana comes, in part, from the marketing strategies of one of these local television stations.

So, an Cajun cultural criticism might look something like this: an intimate connection between production and consumption (even more, perhaps, than Levine’s “Folklore of Industrial Society” suggests); an interest in maintaining and commodifying cultural tradition; the ability to “password protect” cultural information from outsiders. This model would generate a highly participatory web, while still maintaining a sense of cultural authority and loose hierarchy. There is a sense that all are welcome to experience Cajun culture (through virtually every sense), but in order to really, deeply experience it you need a kind of local guide (a kind of cultural paywall?). This maintenance of cultural authority, gatekeeping, authenticity takes a different form than the kind of impersonal boundaries of the mass culture industries, but still persists as these cultural brokers continue to sell themselves, and the region, to the rest of the world.

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