On the (Over)Exposures of Stupidity

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In his video “The Internet as Playground and Factory,” Howard Rheingold speaks to the camera:

In the wake of [my] books, I’ve been asked by critics and by scholars, and by myself these things: [are] the use of digital media, communication networks, any good for us—as individuals, relationships, as communities, as democratic societies? I’ve become convinced that the answer is in large part, it depends on what people know. That we’re entering a phase in which the literacies of participation, attention, collaboration, crap detection [sic] and network awareness are critical uncertainties that will determine whether the internet as playground and factory is going to become very, very useful for a large number of people, very useful for a small number of people, or a complete cesspool full of garbage (00:01:15 - 00:02:11).

He goes on to add:

The greatest danger, for example, that parents face when their kids get online is not sexual predation, it’s the odds that their kid is going to fall for bullshit. So I think teaching people how to get the answer to any question . . .  and then trying to determine whether the answer they get is accurate is probably the most important, basic skill (00:02:24-51)

The five cases of what we have been calling the idiocy of videocy—Wallace, Wood, Murmur, Emory, and Ravi—each speak, in different ways not only to Rheingold’s concerns but the concerns of many (both mainstream and academic) voices over the easy and free dissemination of on-line video. The fear is that sites like YouTube are generating a situation where what is counted as knowledge is becoming more polluted and behaviors encouraged by the technologies are becoming (or appearing to become) less ethical. All the personas in the five cases acted with self-assured assertiveness coupled with a bungled action, in short—stupid. They all acted out in what Rheingold might characterize as that “complete cesspool full of garbage,” but that we, in a somewhat different denegating manner, have characterized as “YouTube’s Underbelly.”

To be sure, Wallace posted a racist rant and got exposed. Wood’s physically violent classroom rage was captured and disseminated by students, who partially provoked the outburst and were most certainly frightened by it. Murmur thought he covered his (butt) tracks, but he still got busted. In seeking popularity and recognition from his Twitter followers, Ravi pushed his roommate to the ultimate limit.

And yet, we might also revisit each of these cases through the lens of Evan Emory, a young man who recorded himself playing an innocent song for a first grade class and then remixed the recording with sexually explicit lyrics. Emory, after all, is one of the most salient examples of this generation of YouTube Idiots. First, Emory, who called himself a “jackass” after the event, shares with the others (and, at particular times, with the rest of us) the lack of being able to tie actions to how they might impact others and the consequences that could result. Stupidity is like opinions, as the joke goes. Second—and here is where Emory is different—his crime never actually occurred, unless simulating an event, fictionalizing an event, is a crime. He used real children in his simulation, so concerned parents became rather angry, but, as Emory stated in the disclaimers to his video, the children were never exposed to the explicit material. An aspiring comedian, Emory did it—enthusiastically, an enthusiasm that made him appear more stupid than he was—to make people laugh. And it is perhaps here, in the Milli Vanilli of a crime, where a YouTube sense of enthusiasm converts and continues the long, slippery connotations of stupidity in the simulacrum.

What to do in light of such stupidities? As stated above by Rheingold and at the beginning by Reid, it appears that the way out is what everyone already knows—to teach our children well. All we need is the right context, the right framing, a critical interpretive apparatus of information literacy to separate out the useful from the wasteful. And one more thing—that students need to develop stable notions of ownership and identity so they know which parts of their video they made and which parts they borrowed, so they know when someone is using their work without their consent, so they can represent themselves accurately in their own digital storytelling project. As Alex Reid suggests in his own video, establishing a critical literacy and identity formation seem to go hand-in-hand in protecting us from harmful content:

It would appear that . . . the key to a successful ethical virtual community begins with establishing a critical literacy through which users come to understand how their identities are formed, preserved, and communicated through media networks, a critical literacy that protects us from exposure to undesirable or inaccurate media and our own exposure to others (“Virtual Community” 00:04:11-34).

But Reid also goes on to suggest that one might think a little more about such a simple solution. Could it be that such calls for critical literacy are not sophisticated enough for real world situations? If we apply this statement in light of the Clementi case, if Clementi had been fully secure in his identity (of being gay) and if he had understood how media networks (Ravi’s actions) might form, preserve, and spread his gay identity, then he would have been resilient enough to withstand Ravi’s mocking attacks against his selfhood, and the case would have not ended in tragedy.

With Reid, we recognize this is too easy. Too simple. Too stupid. It suggests not only that a human’s identity is able to contain the excess that is each one of us, but it suggests that the knowledge of this identity is enough. It presupposes a myth: that there is knowledge (I am gay) and that knowledge is immanent to my being (I am). This is what Nancy, Davis, Reid and others call  “the myth of [epistemological] immanence.” Citing Diane Davis, Reid explains:

As Diane Davis notes, ‘Even radical writing pedagogies, that is, which presume that identity is constituted and plural, have a tendency to reproduce the myth of immanence by encouraging students to consider themselves presentable.’ That is, conventional writing pedagogies view students as self-present, internalized subjects, but even those who critique such notions as the production of cultural-ideological forces aim ‘to help the student writer become conscious of and then to speak from her own radical positioning--that is, to embrace an identity founded on that positioning and to disclose it in writing as the basis for her own arguments and ideas’ (qtd. in Reid; Davis “Finitude’s” 121).

Rather than a critical literacy that wages an impossible war against stupidity, Davis invites us to risk our stupidity and compose ... and such compositions invite us to risk exposing our cognitive failures.

Indeed, Davis argues for a literacy of exposure, one that sidesteps the myth of being made presentable (the myth of immanence) through writing, video, interview, or any medium and instead encourages a communitarian literacy where it is recognized that there can only be a community without unity, without solidarity, one founded on difference where the singularities (rather than individuals) are exposed to their “irreparable exposure” of finitude (Davis 122). Such a community is a community that resists all forms of holism. Entertaining to many, useful to some, and replete with numerous “cesspools of garbage,” YouTube is already just such a community. It’s an “underbelly” that we’re trying to expose and come to terms with here.

Davis forwards the following notes towards a literacy of exposure (here compressed for economy’s sake).

  • The writer is not a subject but a becoming, and so the writer is never becoming one thing but is in perpetual movement through encounters with others.

  • Even when working alone writers are plural, haunted by others. Plural writers do not work with the voices in themselves in order to collaborate and unify, but work at the interstices among the others.

  • To write at the space of the encounter necessarily entails a loss of identity. It’s worth quoting Davis here: “There is no way for an I(dentity) to survive an engagement with writing. One does not return from it, but—as Nancy says of the return from love—one returns ‘broken,’ re-aquainted with one’s irreparable exposure and excessive inappropriability.” (137).

  • Interpretive writing is secondary to listening. Rather than hearing what someone says and reinscribing it in order to “understand” and make it “make sense,” one listens to hear what one cannot understand, and so thus encounters the other’s inappropriable exteriority (their singularity). This listening is both invited and actively sought.

  • Exposed, plural writers accept and seek to amplify their instability and vulnerability “to which any writing necessarily testifies” (139). Steering clear of the myth of wholeness, writing is necessarily incomplete and takes place at the limit of communication, at the spaces where communication breaks down. Words may not be found to resolve ambiguity, but it is in these ambiguous spaces where writing and writers compose unapologetically and with humility.

Thinking about Davis’s suggestions for a “communitarian literacy” in a traditional (i.e., classroom) writing environment carries its own set of challenges, ones different from digital media. From our vantage point, the digital seems to proliferate, as we have examined, a condition of cultural exposure. Davis’s essay, in fact, portends the numerous concrete, readily available examples of writers and video makers risking their own exposure and the exposure of others that have become the backdrop to networked writing. It may seem that we didn’t have these stupidities or exposures before YouTube culture, but these elements have always been part of street discourse, face-to-face conversation, gossip, and the social elements of school.

But while Davis, before the explosion of participatory culture, was already in 2001 encouraging writing teachers to leave behind the sense of a stable identity to think and write at the interstices of identities and in the felt sense of becoming-exposed, various scholars, asking what should be done in light of the new phenomenon of digital exposures (Rheingold’s “cesspool of garbage,” for instance) advocate a return to identity positions and group identification. This is why Reid takes a necessary and helpful step in his essay by holding to the sense of exposure that Davis advocates and refusing to succumb to the notion that the only way to deal with the problems that arise in internet space is by developing yet even more “critical literacy.” “Both mainstream and academic discourses,” writes Reid, “have argued for the development of a critical, digital literacy to protect against exposure by and to social, digital media networks. In both cases, digital media are viewed as external forces threatening an existing internal identity rather than as part of a new assemblage through which contemporary identities will be produced.”

Like Davis, Reid recognizes that these contemporary identities are exposed to the larger assemblage and will be perpetually produced—and destroyed—such is the nature of becoming-exposed. With both Davis and Reid, the question that we want to ask is not how to develop critical literacies in the face of video exposure so students can learn better to either protect their identities or to assume new subject positions. People as diverse as Langdon Winner, Giorgio Agamben, and a host of others have noted that one does not choose to use the technological apparatus critically. Doing so reduces the apparatus to an instrumentalist position of neutral tool (Winner 19) or fails to recognize that a technological apparatus that produces subjectivities does not produce subjects who would use it correctly (Agamben 21). Rather, we ask the following:

Now that YouTube and participatory culture have opened our scholarship to the streets and alleyways of stupidities that have been there all along, how do we develop a sensitivity to stupidity, a rhetoric for or with stupidity, that permits us and our students the freedom of becoming stupid, which implies with it a freedom to experiment, to make mistakes, to interrupt the norm, to laugh, to silliness, to goof off, and, perhaps, to expose our inappropriable exteriority, our singularity to ourselves and to the other, to avoid, and disrupt any sense that could be construed as “being-in-common” or common sense?

The remixes of our videos are presented with the intention of having other scholars take a step towards this admittedly difficult question to pose. Now that it has been posed, we’re not so ready to dismiss YouTube as a cesspool, for it is through the idiotic exposures of YouTube that something like an “emancipatory stupidity” (to borrow a phrase often attributed to Kathy Acker) might be generated (Ronell, Stupidity 87; see also Ronell “Kathy” and Beckman). YouTube may be problematic within an established moral system, but as scholars, we must ask—or at least remain open to the possibility—whether the cultural shift that video culture has initiated will also have the power to displace the moral system within which it was originally founded.

Becoming stupid might likely play a role. As Ronell writes: “the treatment of stupidity cannot be left to denunciatory work. There is other work to be done” (87). We all recognize that YouTube, the cases above, as well as the entire “spectrum of political horror” have been “coded in shades of stupidity.” But “there also exists a tonality of the stupid” that is part of the “registers of a gay science,” where “affirmation and yes-saying” become possible (88). From “Shut Up, Little Man!” to “Ching Chong, Ling Long” to a row of scholars enjoying an old-fashioned belly laugh, we have attempted to show that ignorances, imbeciles, and idiots also traffic in double exposures and movements. We hope not to be overconfident in expecting that these, what we might call, “gay stupidities,” will also have their day.