Friday, August 31, 2007

Difference in Web 2.0.

In the beginning, they said that on the internet nobody knows you are a dog. People were excited at the thought that you can be whomever you want on the internet. No more gender lines, no more racial lines, no more age lines, no more lines full stop. Sherry Turkle of MIT wrote a book entited "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet" where she argued that with ITs, our identities become multiple (we can have an identity in each window we open) and thus fluid (since we are in multiple windows, there is no necessity for coherence or ridigity). She writes: "The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life. In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create"

Once the hype faded away, people realized that their avatars look very much like their real-life personas. That they chat quite similarly to how they talk. And that their education, age, and even income, come across their online personas in many different ways. Check my avatar; if you've seen me, you will know what looks like me and what doesn't:

The internet may be a space where differences like race, ethnicity, age, gender and so on seem rather redundant. But the truth is that we are constructing the virtual space with the same social skills that contribute to the construction of our real-life society. Lines of power are reproduced online in the same way in which they are produce in real-life. I think it is the perfect space where the researcher can actually do research on how the difference is being constructed and enacted visually and textually.

Anyway, the point of the post: I came across this very interesting project called Global Kids. They do educational work in Second Life. Jame Paul Gee, a professor, came and talked to them, in Second Life, in the end of some avatar contest. It's interesting to see how the avatars and the discussion both confirm and contradict what I've just been writing so far. So, see for yourself the first (of a series of some 14) clip:

Friday, August 24, 2007

Patriarchy and Berthe Morisot

Just added a new blog (Flexible Knowledges) to my blogroll. One entry spoke to me about difference (well, i am blogging about it, ain't I?). The blogger was talking about her visit to a Berthe Morisot exhibition along with a male friend, who:

went from each of Morisot's oils on display, naming the (male) artist of whose work he found that painting "derivative." Thus: "Monet, Degas..." and so on.
flexible knowledges: I don't like the term derivative

Understandably, the blogger in cause was upset, for each work was traced back to one painted by a man. Now, you'd say, don't we do this in academic all the time, tracing whatever we produce back to their intellectual legacy? Yes, but in this particular case, the tracing was done along a gender line which implied that whatever the woman created is a mere derivative (as the blogger says) of an 'authentic' or 'original', man-made painting. In this sense, the difference here was constructed as one between the copy and the original, replicating a quite old, Christian vision of Eve derived from Adam's rib.

I still remember asking my teacher as a child as to why there aren't any women who created something original, something as big as a Mozart or a Renoir. She said: because somebody had to take care of the house and of the kids. But I realized that this is only part of the answer: it's also because I have been trained to recognize the genious of originality in men's work, while women's work didn't make it in the canon, except maybe marginally. I've been trained to see the difference between works in terms of the gender of the author. And to evaluate greatness or originality in terms of furious passion, roughness, directness, possession, aggressivity and the list could go on.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Back to religion. Or maybe Web 2.0? is (yet) another tool for sharing sites you find interesting with your friends - well, actually with the world. Being bored, I searched what websites people saved for the word 'difference'. Amidst the many technical links, one caught my eye: The Religion of Peace: Islam Making a True Difference in the World. The link has been saved by some 200 people, which seems quite a number. I click full of hope. But hope vanishes instantly: the first thing that greets me from the Religion of Peace (no link to hate-speech here, so do your own googling) is the photo of an injured child. And the title: "Islam, the Religion of Peace (and a big stack of dead bodies)".

I am on a news site dedicated to showing how islam kills and how its casualties are piling up!
I am no fan of any religion (see religion post), but confronted with the website I instinctively feel the need to argue in support of the right to your own faith. The website seems a Hate Speech 101: sweeping generalizations (islam=terrorism), offending irony (latest offerings from the religion of peace), the appearance of relying on scientific data (stats), the pretense of objective newsreporting, the use of strong, emotional characterizations in relation to islam (rape, murder, dead).

The site is an example of constructing the difference - a negative difference based on the idea of the Other defined by/through its faith. I remind myself that tolerance includes letting hate-speech being expressed too (or at least that's the liberal democratic argument and the idea of the First Amendment). But as technological capabilities evolve, giving us new venues to voice ideas in a more persuasive way, I feel a bit frustrated that teaching critical skills takes a lot of time and sweat, weakening our capacity as a society to restore peace (and keep such hate-speech in a position of marginality).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Defining difference?

After the aggressive advertising campaign to make my blog known to the outter world, a friend told me "the issue of difference, on your blog, has not been properly introduced---it is just too vague, hanging there without a context, YOUR context" (ah, do I love the academics...)

Today's post is just about that: defining difference. My friend wrote:

"First. There are differences which are not fundamental-- all too superficial-- and those one should let the others worry about them. It may be more fruitful for your discussion to narrow down the differences which seem fundamental to you.

Second. It may be worth to probe into the source of someone's interest in difference. This concern with difference, obviously, can spring from various wells. On a most widespread scale, I would say, from negative feelings such as fear, jealousy, envy, "redneckness", ressentiment and so on. In very rare instances it can stem from strength, "objectivity," a sense of justice (as Nietzsche understood justice)---in a word, from positive and active attitudes."

These are good, valid points. But I'm coming from a qualitative tradition, one which asks not what difference is (the definition) but looks for the ways in which the definition might emerge out of trying to understand how difference is. I'm gonna let difference undefined, cause definitions belong to dictionaries. Everyday life makes and unmakes definitions.

The question of interest here is what difference counts as significant, and why? To quote from one of my favourite professors in this big small world, how is the boundary being drawn? And what is the relation between the drawing of this boundary and social structures, power, inequalities, choice and so on?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Living with difference in Vancouver

The thing I love most in Vancouver is that you can actually see and live difference in so many ways. Men holding hands in Stanley Park, women kissing on Davie Street, Asian/Caucasian couples, black/Asian couples, black/white couples, and so on, and so forth. It seems as if difference has been dealt with, accepted and metamorphosed into a way of life. The few who may be upset with it are no longer supported by a mass of followers. And the more one is brought up with accepting difference, the less difference matters.

Or at least that's what I like to believe. The truth is I have no clue what people truly think when they see difference on the streets of Vancouver. And the skeptic in me remembers that maybe people, concerned with their daily lives, do not care too much about difference. But Johan Galtung once said that peace is not only the absence of violence, but the capacity of self-restoration. Difference starts becoming an issue when something is at stake, when a threat needs to be rationalized (and thus controlled) and when when the scapegoats have to be brought to light for the catharsis (and that false sense of security) of the group. I wonder if the difference on the streets of Vancouver has grown to the point of Galtung's peace: would it have the self-restoration capacity if threats and demons would arrive to haunt it?

And then again, the difference I'm depicting here is misleading. It's closer to diversity, but concepts are like labels that grow narrow. I've seen the difference between Robson Street and the area around Chinatown/ Gastown; the difference between the fancy promenade and the scary ghetto. It's still difference, isn't it? And this one does seem to reproduce itself over and over again, irrespective of the time and place...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fearing the Other: Homelessness

Calgary is an baby-boomer among Canadian cities. Some 100 people are said to arrive daily in this oil’n’gas city, thus driving an exponential increase of population in an otherwise still rural city. Most people nowadays talk about criminality, growing insecurity and homelessness. Newspapers are already engaged in a campaign asking for tougher police intervention. And of course, local politicians have already incorporated the discourse of safety and security into their populist-driven agendas.

But beyond the rhetoric, it is true that as a city grows, so do criminality and insecurity. I do not know if there is a necessary causality here (I prefer to think not, because causality is a very tricky thing), but today I started noticing the homeless downtown. Not that I do not see them, but rather that this time I started looking at them with different eyes, held my bag closer and looked around to make sure the encounter could classify as safe. My friend added: “Did you hear about the homeless in Toronto who killed a tourist?” and we plunged into our the usual discussion about feeling safe in a big, growing city.

Reflecting on difference and living with it are two different things: the first is a cognitive endeavor, while the second is an embodied practice. As homelessness becomes associated with criminality, our previously 'tolerant' attitudes are changing. But it's not only about attitudes. It's also about our physical fears being awaken by the constant association of homelssness and criminality in various public spheres. We read about this, we see it on TV, we start talking about it with our friends and before you know it, our behavior and our explanations of this behavior have changed. This only shows, I think, how our understanding and embracing of difference is neither static, nor outside our contextual and contingent embodied existences.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Difference is in your dreadlocks?

I'm looking for interesting websites, and I run across this blog on race. It's not updated, but I still browse it, to see what people have been talking about. This one totally gets me:
White. People. Should. Not Wear. Dreads.
...It is not an expression of the unity of all mankind.
It is not getting back to the most natural state of things.
It is not any of these things, because you make them look dirty. You take it as an excuse not to bathe, as if there is no water in Africa, or Jamaica. You take it as an excuse to appropriate a culture you probably know next to nothing about, so you can look liberal, socially conscious, politically aware. You don't look liberal. You look stupid...

The post got 46 comments (while most of the others got some 7-10 comments). People reacted in various ways. But what puzzles me is how a particular way of understanding difference in relation to ethnicity/ race permeates this post. To each race, its hairstyle. When we see difference, we see it in racial terms. We see it in national terms. It is this juxtaposition of difference and race within the context of racism that I find simultaneously repugnant and dangerous. It may be the case that race has no meaning nowdays except in relation to racism, which - we need to be reminded - has not always been the case in human history.
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