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Updating to Remain the Same: An Interview with Wendy Chun

Updating to Remain the Same: An Interview with Wendy Chun

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is a Professor of Modern Culture and Media and of History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. She has served on the HASTAC Steering Committee (2008-2011) and on the Council of Advisors (2011-2014) and is the author of Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (2006), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (2011), and —most recently— Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (2016). Her work critically examines the ways in which our social and technological practices reflect and refract one another, drawing attention to the beliefs and systems that shape our engagements. 

 

You were on one of the early steering committees for HASTAC, so could you say a little bit about how you got involved with HASTAC and what those early conversations were like?

Well I wasn’t part of the very early conversations of HASTAC. I was brought in as they were broadening the steering committee, I think mainly at the invitation of Tara McPherson. It was a fascinating set of discussions to be part of as people were trying to understand what a humanities and arts and science and technology collaboratory would look like, what topics would be taken on, what could be engaged as scholarship outside of what we normally accept scholarship to be, as well as really broadening out what we understood to be digital media, and I think this is what HASTAC has done so wonderfully. It has refused to accept the terms and the usual context for digital media but has really insisted that digital media has always been about politics, about questions of difference and identity, and that’s been, I think, HASTAC’s important intervention.

 

The hugeness of the HASTAC mission is always kind of interesting to me. It’s a little overwhelming as a scholar when you’re first trying to enter the conversation. How do people enter that conversation, or how do we bring people into that conversation in this really multi- or trans- disciplinary work?

Well, I think that’s a really hard question, and I think that part of the strength of HASTAC is its overwhelmingness. But I do think that some of the most important parts of HASTAC for me have been various threads that have been started by scholars. I refer students to those all the time, and also the teaching resources. Unfortunately with a lot of things its keyword search, right? So you think of a topic, you look through it, you try to get that conversation going, but you also try to see what’s already been said about it. But I don’t think that this is unique to HASTAC. It’s part of any large online discussion.

 

So you mentioned some threads that you direct your students to. Can you think of any specific ones that you’ve liked in the past or that have done well in your classes?

Yeah, there’ve been several about sexuality that I have pointed students towards, as well as questions of race and gender. I also have pointed other instructors to the great section in HASTAC which talks about assignments and alternate assignments that can be given out.

For like digital or multimedia composition – that sort of engagement with academic work?

Exactly.

 

So I just finished reading Updating to Remain the Same, and I loved it. What I think I like best about it is the really evocative language, the way you sort of press words to mean all the things they can mean or maybe more than they usually mean, and I was really taken with your argument at the end about fighting for the right to loiter and the right to be vulnerable without being attacked, and I wondered if you could say more about how we build that kind of habit. Where do we begin—and begin to help others—make the kinds of engagements that let them inhabit these networks in ways that are different from the habits we’ve built so far?

That’s a great question. I think that part of it is to realize that we are always already loitering, that just by using a network we are already fundamentally exposed and in public. And if we took that as the grounding circumstance, I think that changes a lot of the ways we consider our interactions. For instance, slut-shaming makes no sense if we are all exposed. I mean, why should certain people be targeted as being bad users and exposed? So I think part of it is to think through how we’re in public, but not just technologically, but to view this as itself something that’s also fundamentally social. So to go back to your first part about using the richness of words, I’ve always started by looking at a word and trying to see how it resonates so differently in different contexts. Like “control,” for instance, within engineering is so different than what we consider control to be. As well as notions of privacy [that] are so different and have changed historically. And so part of what I have always tried to do is understand the multiple contradictions and paradoxes that exist, not so that they can be resolved, but to understand what structures and sustains them. And so again, I think that if we are going to think through public rights, we have to hold so many different things together and try to both rethink why we expect what we do is the status quo. Why do we believe these networks to be private, why do we believe that the default is some sort of privacy, where privacy equals secrecy or some unknowability, when it’s so clearly not, and how can we—by engaging these technologies and our social practices—build something different.

 

I love that. And I love that idea of resonating in different contexts. It strikes me as one of the tangible advantages of trans-disciplinary work, is to understand what these kinds of terms can mean, how they can mean something so different from different disciplinary angles. So what are you working on now?

So I’m working on a book project tentatively called Discriminating Data, and it’s not simply a book project, it’s also going to be, hopefully, more of a hands-on rethinking of network analytics. So the project looks at the ways in which network analytics, to put it most bluntly, is sort of like a bad form of ethnic studies. So at a time when allegedly difference doesn’t matter, you have all these network analytic programs trying to pigeonhole people in certain identities, right? And so homophilies—this big deal in network analytics—and so the basic assumption behind network analytics is that you will act like other people and that you have certain mutable categories such as where you live, but immutable categories such as race and gender. So there’s this really bizarre embedding of bad identity politics that buttresses a lot of network analytics. So if we now live in echo chambers, it’s not accidental. It’s actually because of the basic fundamental assumptions of these algorithms. So the project is really a call is to rethink these algorithms, to rethink network analytics, especially in light of the wonderful critical work that has been done in ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, critical race studies, and to show how these are central to building a just society precisely because of network analytics. So network analytics hasn’t made critical theory obsolete; it’s made it actually even more critical.

 

What do you see as the value in a network like HASTAC? It strikes me that so much of what you have written would be useful and interesting for a popular audience, for a high school audience. And I don’t know that HASTAC is the place that does that, but how do we as academics move into those public argument-making spaces, do you think?

Well, HASTAC is great for building an academic community. And especially, I think, for a lot of graduate students who feel alienated in pursuing what they’re doing, or don’t feel like there’s a community there for them. I think the question of translation or— better yet, not even translation but engagement with the general public— is really key, and for me, it’s a question that I haven’t ever been able to resolve because at a certain level what we do is scholarly, and it’s resolutely scholarly. And just as in engineering, [where] they work on topics, which are definitely of interest to the general public, but certainly aren’t written for the general public, there’s a certain scholarly domain to this. But at the same time, engineering or science results get translated. They have their own publicity machines— Nature, Science—that are allegedly reputable scientific magazines, but really kind of like The National Enquirer of science that then gets picked up by the media and translated in various ways.

But I think that the question you are asking is a different one, which is: how do we intervene politically? How do we engage with students, especially when we’re writing about issues that are of value to the students? Some of my students in my courses ask the question: this is great, but how do we translate this for kids out there who should be learning this? I think there are many people in this world and many different roles that we play. I don’t think that I’m the most comfortable public intellectual, but I do think that there are ways in which we can work with others, other organizations, and do these sort of political interventions. Because for me that’s key, but I don’t think everybody needs to do everything at once, but I have found myself engaging far more public audiences than I have in the past.

Yeah, I think that part of it is that so much of our lives—of every person’s life—is tangled up in their online networks that your work really speaks to the experiences of, well, everybody.

That’s very kind but I’m a deeply geeky and shy person.

Oh! I’m not asking you to go out and crusade for it. I’d be happy to do that on your behalf, at least with all the high school people. I’d like to close with just inviting your thoughts on HASTAC and what you might like to see as we move forward.

I just am deeply appreciative of what HASTAC has done, and I think what’s really important to me is the fact that new generations of HASTAC scholars are brought in all the time, and they can change the platform, make it do something else. I think the question that you brought up I would like to see different paths of navigability, different ways in that really highlights what’s already there.

 

You can find Tara Brabazon's review of Updating to Remain the Same here

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