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FLASH SYMPOSIUM: Pursuing Critical Media & Technology Studies

November 05, 2019
2:30 PM - 6:00 PM
The Catalyst at FCAD, RCC-230, 80 Gould Street, 2nd Floor
Open To
the public

A critical theory of media and technology works to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces that shape our experiences and development of media and technology. This flash symposium showcases work from students engaged with critical theories of race and racism, gender, queer experience, and normative bodies in their studies of media, technology and related industries.

Ideally, we will focus on questions such as:

  • What are the relationships between technologies and continued forms of oppression? How does technology modernize racism, sexism, etc.?
  • Going forward or seeking resistance, what are alternative ways of living with or using media or technology?
  • What role can critical theory play in answering these questions?

This symposium seeks to bring together students engaged in similar pressing questions that involve the use of critical theory or critical concepts in order to track down social problems and provide new possible solutions.

Please consider this a time to discuss each other’s work and collaborate, in pursuit of socially beneficial or insightful outcomes. The department of Communication & Culture also welcomes guest contributor Cindy Ma.

Time Topic

Session 1: Finding & Resisting: Mapping Networks and Finding Answers

2:45 PM – 3:00 PM

Constructing Whiteness Online Through the Language of Oppression
Cindy Ma, DPhil Candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute

Abstract: In her 1989 piece, “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh catalogues the many taken-for-granted advantages she has enjoyed in her life due to her race. Her article illustrates how whiteness has been rendered invisible, how it forms the unmarked default category against which all others are compared, but which seems to contain no substance of its own. This is the principle upon which a great deal of theorizing on whiteness has been based. By extension, the work of critical theorists must be to make visible that which has been naturalized and to highlight how seemingly race-neutral policies, ways of speaking, and technologies perpetuate the dominance of whiteness. But in examining the works of popular right-wing internet personalities, we see that whiteness is not treated as an empty signifier but rather discursively tied to concepts like “Western culture” and “Judeo-Christian values.” In my talk, I will argue that much can be learned about the appeal of the “alt-right” if we examine how white people perceive their own racialisation. For instance, “alt-right” personalities often deploy narratives of decline to illustrate the need for white racial consciousness, while adopting rhetorical strategies employed historically by people of colour seeking equality. My research aims to interrogate this discourse of white victimhood, drawing out and challenging its logic.

3:00 – 3:15 PM

Channel Surfing: YouTube, Rebel Media, and Politicized Platform Networks
Anthony Burton, MA, Communication & Culture

Abstract: There has been much scholarship regarding new media companies in the United States fueling a rise in hateful far-right politics. Websites such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller instrumentalized Facebook and Twitter to spread their rhetoric. Yet a parallel situation in Canada is receiving less attention: the rise of Rebel Media, a Canadian YouTube channel that has quickly gained influence as a premier far-right media network. As a YouTube channel, the same research into Facebook and Twitter cannot be applied to the Rebel. Yet the channel's prominence is the explicit result of it being part of YouTube's political content framework. This presentation will be a discussion and analysis of data pulled from YouTube's API that illustrates the video networks created from the Rebel's video content, search queries for political topics, and video recommendations to users. My preliminary findings show how the perceived political agnosticism of YouTube's network algorithms locates the Rebel within both American new-right media and, more importantly, directly within traditional Canadian news networks. Based on these results, I call for a constant critical approach to not only the Rebel's content, but the trust we place in the supposed political neutrality of new platform logics.

3:15 – 3:30 PM

The Idol of Belief: Why We See What We Believe
Cyrus Sundar Singh, PhD, Communication & Culture

Abstract: Faith in a person, place or thing presupposes empirical evidence and instead places its complete and perhaps blind trust in the ideologue, the ideology, and the idol. Whereby the idol becomes the belief, and the belief the idol, codified, venerated, and in certain circumstances deified. This is especially true in the pursuit of justice within the culture of Western Law, and moreover an ever-present negotiation inherent in the dissemination of cultural communication through all forms of media. Yet our ability to trust is heavily predicated on opinion (witness), mediation (intent), and the message (narrative). Why do we put our faith in the objects we cannot directly see rather than trust our ability to see? Is the attainment of truth untenable? And if so, why do we strive to pursue the truth? This paper explores how faith itself becomes an idol of belief and therefore obscures the need for, and the attainment of truth. Through an autopsis of course work related scholarship from media theorists such as Habermas, Ranciere, Slatman, Innis and McLuhan, together with the works of modern artists and social activists Francis Alÿs and Pablo Helguera, this paper explores how how we see is envisaged by our faith or belief in what we see.

3:30 – 3:45 PM

Becoming Political Bodies: Avatars, Relations, and Theorizing What’s Next
Melody Devries, PhD, Communication & Culture, Ryerson University

Abstract: As technology evolves, media theorists have encountered several tropes that frame our theorization of technology+humans. Safe to say, it has become credulous to take seriously a technological determinism that assumes social problems and political turbulence as stemming directly from the cultural prominence or technical features of iPhones, Twitter, or online games. And yet, it is also overly simplistic to assume no interference in the development of social life from the technologies that are a deep part of lived experience, and that mediate or exacerbate existing systems of oppression. A radically relational epistemology (Powell 2013) accounts for this, proposing instead that all social phenomena, including individuals, bodies, and technologies themselves, are co-constituted through relations. That is, we cannot consider users or technology as existing separately from each other, but instead moments of their interaction compose experienced reality. This epistemology takes relations themselves as the “object” of study, and considers such ongoing relations as a continuously formative processes from which bodies, technologies, or digital life become in either hegemonic or counter-hegemonic ways. Cutting and assembling notions of cyborg (Haraway 1991) and virtual (Boellstorff 2008) embodiment, I propose that processes of online becoming, when considered under a radical relational epistemology, can be best understood by a concept of performative embodiment. In preliminary analysis, I discuss these processes on forum communities and on VRChat, where technological affordances for creativity evoke both hegemonic presentations as well as radically queer re-shaping of life and bodies.

Discussion: 3:45 – 4:00 PM
Coffee Break: 4:00 – 4:30 PM

Session 2: Design, Mediation, and Identity

4:30 – 4:45 PM

#Mosquemetoo: Challenging the Limits of the #MeToo Movement and Discourse
Lauren Lyew, MA, Communication & Culture

Abstract: The resurgence of #MeToo in 2017 gave rise to public discourse on sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women. As a movement, #MeToo was successful in demonstrating the prevalence of sexual violence on a global level, and the strength of Twitter as a tool for critical discourse and social activism. However, #MeToo is also limited in its ability to effectively include women of colour - Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous women - in the discourse, as well as women who are affected by sexual misconduct in religious spaces or by religious leaders. Recognized as a gap in the #MeToo discourse, #ChurchToo was started by two young American women only one month after #MeToo was popularized, and in February 2018, #MosqueMeToo was started by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy. Thus, the underlying questions that this paper seeks to address are: How does religion problematize the discourse of sexual violence against women? How does #Mosquemetoo create a space for marginalized and under-represented groups to partake in the discourse, that #MeToo does not?

4:45 – 5:00 PM

The Political Project of Being Fat on the Internet: Overcoming Visual Gatekeepers
Calla Evans, PhD, Communication & Culture

Abstract: This presentation will take a preliminary look at the relationship between the social photography platform Instagram and the “good fatty” archetype. Marginalized communities are traditionally underrepresented in mainstream media. Applications such as Instagram provide individuals from these communities a platform to view and interact with bodies and identities that are visually similar to their own, thereby circumnavigating traditional media gatekeepers. As of June 2018, Instagram has reached 1 billion active monthly users. Yet despite its popularity, little research has been devoted to social photography and the construction of meaning-making in the visual social media sphere. Drawing from Judith Butler’s theory of identity performance and Charlotte Cooper’s concept of activist-oriented research methodologies, this presentation will present a preliminary mapping of the possibilities and limitations of self-authorship and social photography as a means to challenge hegemonic representations of marginalized groups in popular culture with a focus on fat identity performance, fat representation and fat activist practices.

5:00 – 5:15 PM

“I Just Don’t Get This Whole Gender Thing”: Femininity, Vocality, and Communication Technology
Alex Borkowski, PhD, Communication & Culture

Abstract: This paper examines the tethering of femininity to technology via the voice in virtual assistant interfaces such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, all of which assume female-fronted personas in their Canadian default settings. Documents leaked to The Guardian in July 2019 regarding Apple’s grading program revealed that the interface is conditioned to disengage and deflect questions regarding gender, avoiding the “controversial” term feminism and replying “I just don’t get this whole gender thing.” This paper challenges Apple’s assertion that Siri is genderless, arguing that gender has in fact played a crucial and conscious role in its development. Siri’s ambivalent gender politics are indicative of an historical alignment between femininity and communication technology. In particular, the female-dominated profession of the telephone operator in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century offers insight into the longstanding deployment of women’s vocalic labour in communicative capitalism. While telephone companies lauded feminine capacities for patience, sensitivity, and gentleness; this gendered division of labour was spurred by economic interest and was rigorously policed according to audible markers of race and class. Critical consideration of these historical exclusions and economic entanglements suggests that Apple’s positing of Siri a post-gender being bears scrutiny.

5:15 – 5:30 PM

The Design of Difference: Race, Gender, and Oppositions Constructed in Online Digital Games
Chris Hugelmann, PhD, Communication & Culture

Abstract: As digital games continue an upward trajectory in terms of their consumption, it is imperative to utilize a critical lens when exploring not only the content of these online media, but also the design of the interfaces and interactions that mediate between the player and the underlying code. Numerous games within the massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) genre fall into stereotypical tropes from the fantasy literary genre, and offer only a limited set of options in order to create oneself as a visual representation in the game (known as an avatar). In this talk, I will argue that the designed interfaces required to create one’s character reveal the implicit biases that are held by designers at game development companies, and highlight the critical game design scholarship that has taken up these questions of representation and nuanced approaches towards character creation and identity play. I will utilize ideas from the avatar affordances framework (McArthur, Teather, & Jenson, 2015) as well as considerations of games as value-laden systems (Barr et al., 2007) to articulate the ways that online digital games have proven to be an illuminating example of the way that design can influence the behaviours and becomings of individuals.

Discussion: 5:30 – 6:00 PM