Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor of cinema studies, Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Continuing from my last posting, here are the final four of the auspicious take-aways from my Nanyang Technological University colleagues, in no particular order of importance. These are practices and ways of doing intellectual life that unhinged my global north/US centric bias/East coast interventionist assumptions (even though, like most intellectuals, I thought I didn’t have them)
5. Lunch. A big part of my work life at NTU featured lunches and coffees with a myriad of colleagues, collaborators, and contacts.
One of my long-term colleagues in Information Science in the School of Communication, Christopher Khoo, an internationally recognized researcher of knowledge systems and an organizer of lunch expeditions, once told me that interdisciplinary research happens at round tables in restaurants. A wise observation.
Food is a central feature of Singaporean cultural identity. Some might call it an obsession. I dug in.
Usually spontaneous, the narrative of lunch featured the build up of what kind of food to eat—Hokkien, Teochow, Hakka, South Indian, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Peranakan, dim sum, western—and then where to eat--- hawker stalls, on campus hawker stalls, on campus restaurants, the faculty club, off campus restaurants.
The next part of narrative build-up entailed who would come—I rarely had a lunch with only one other person. Usually, we’d lunch in a group. The group usually included senior and junior faculty, although I don’t think this was deliberate as much as it is just ingrained in NTUs culture of inclusiveness and mentoring.
Lunch was leisurely, usually long (never less than 90 minutes), never hurried, crowded with questions about cultural differences, research, comparisons of academic life in different countries. I probably learned the most about Asia at these lunches. Analysis of the food we were eating was expected, which I slowly came to realize was a subtle way to discuss the histories, economies, cultures , media systems of Southeast Asia in a way that gently disguised what an American film and new media theorist/historian like me didn’t know.
In some foodie circles, Singapore holds the distinctive title of "Paris of the East" for its staggering, overwhelmingly complex cuisines.
But my Singaporean colleagues made jokes that a more post-colonialist way of considering this accolades was that Paris was trying, desperately, to be Singapore, but had the ultimate disadvantage of being located at a latitude and in a climate where kang kong, kai lan, durian, limes, and chilli could not grow.
Coda: About a month before I repatriated, I received a couple of emails from academic friends in Ithaca who wanted to set up lunch dates. They provided the list of their constraints—no time, needing to organize far in advance, feeling pressed by many obligations, tight calendars (even in summer with no teaching), needing one on one interaction, needing a firm booking weeks in advance for a date. I had a strong and weird reaction, reading these emails in the heat and humidity of SE Asia (I think I was in Thailand at the time)
I resolved to bring a little bit of NTU back into my life in Ithaca, with spontaneity, collegiality, and leisurely interactions at the core.
6. A Collaborative Ethic. The School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University transmits a sense of collegiality and collaboration that is nothing short of energizing for the alliances it creates, the new research ideas it generates, and the interactions it spurs.
Perhaps this collaborative zeitgeist emanates from the group ethic that is part of Asian culture in general. Perhaps it is because NTU is a high-end, prestigious engineering school where team work and problem solving is part of the profession. Perhaps it is the legacy of the heads of the school like Eddie Kuo, Ang Peng Hwa and Ben Detenber.
Perhaps it is because humility is a major value of Buddhist and Asian cultures, with excessive egotism a negative trait where one could lose face.
I am not sure I can explain why collaboration seems so central to SCI. But it served as a powerful antidote to the isolationism, individualism, self-centeredness, negativity, and competitiveness that cuts through American and European academic life.
I didn’t meet one faculty member who worked alone on research, teaching, administrative work.
Of course, faculty had research and writing they did on their own. Most seemed to be working all the time on their projects, with books and print outs piled high on their desks. But it seemed like almost everyone I met did some sort of project with others, or, if not that, they engaged in endless benchmarking and discussion and debate with others other lunch, coffee, drinks. Courses were team taught. Many faculty were mobilized to help mount the International Communication Conference. I deeply admired their team spirit and lack of grousing.
Part of my position as the Shaw Professor of New Media at NTU was to curate a new media exhibition to represent SCI at the International Communication Association (ICA) meeting—and the first step I took was to assemble an interdisciplinary team: Nikki Draper from SCI, Sharon Lin Tay from the School of Art, Design and Media and Wenjie Zhang from the National Museum of Singapore. And then, I mobilized a lot of lunches with the team and with new media artists and labs we were interested in.
It would have been impossible to curate and mount an exhibition of new media works in Southeast Asia alone. New media in the region is exploding , the platforms are multiplying, the context of each country complex, and, significantly, I am an outsider.
Plus, it was a lot more fun to have long lunches thinking through Indonesian social media after Reformasi, Cambodian digital archives tracking Khmer Rouge historiography, the Malaysian New Wave of online shorts, and the CUTE Center’s radical robotics of the sensorial.
7. Unsettling and complicating "independent media." After my time at NTU and in Southeast Asia, I have a new view about independent media—one filled with more questions than answers. My vectors have been rerouted--- completely.
In the countries of what activists often dub the "Global North", the term "independent media" usually refers to media practices outside corporate media combines, dedicated to exposing voices, practices, and ideas the so-called "mainstream" marginalizes.
In Southeast Asia and India, new media practices and infrastructures are exploding, in different ways in different countries, dependent on political changes, economic global flows, complicated histories, and where spaces are available. They don’t follow the pattern of the center of "mainstream" corporate media and the periphery of "independent media." Spaces exist for new media and other forms of media that wind between the two.
For example, Malaysiakini, an online news site that developed in opposition to the Malaysian government, emerged in the context of hard copy press censorship in Malaysia and a loosening of restrictions on the internet to foster growth in the IT sector in light of the multimedia supercorridor there. I attended a conference of "mainstream" journalists from Asia where the editors of Malaysiakini where featured speakers. The site has successfully monetized: it has more readers than many of what westerners would call "mainstream" media (but what is that, exactly, when there are both government regulated media and then international media, like the International Herald Tribune and Al Jazeera?).
A significant take-away from my time in Southeast Asia and India, as well as my curatorial work for NTU, is that we make a strategic and conceptual error if we do not broaden our horizons to understand the emerging formations of new media and cinema in other parts of the world. They might look similar to our "westernized" conceptual models, but we can learn a lot more if we situate their distinctions and differences contextually.
The urgency of rethinking independent media within a more nuanced, complex, global point of view was underscored for me at a session I attended at the ICA conference on "alternative media."
I heard two presentations by white male scholars, one from the US and one from Europe, who were analyzing "independent media" and "alternative media" in Southeast Asia, one a quantitative social scientist, the other a more humanities oriented analyst.
They both marshalled similar language and theoretical models of the counter public sphere, the public sphere, speaking truth to power, making the invisible visible, giving voices, mainstream media, commercial media, censorship, freedom of expression, independence, independent media, alternative media—terms derived from German critical theory and American media scholarship—to analyze blogs, video and some journalistic practices from Southeast Asia.
It troubled me to hear these invocations of terms from 1970s German critical studies and 1980s American independent media and independent journalism applied to Southeast Asian examples, with no attention paid at all to how even these terms, according to many of the artists, activists and academics I encountered, have a distinctly western, global north bias that ignored the differences in media, histories and politics in Southeast Asia.
These talks felt like colonialism camouflaged in critical theory to me. They also felt very ahistorical. They were importing a US/European conceptual model to a region of the world that didn’t share this same history.
I will be posting more about specific examples of emerging media practices in analog and new media from other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, in future blogs.
I’m not an expert at all, just an interested observer. It’s my way of countering these two scholars. (Full disclosure: I confronted them at the session about their unexamined definitions and models of independent media, emboldened, I think, because Enrico Anditjondro from Engage Media in Indonesia, a group we had curated for Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia, was sitting next to me).
8. Harmony. I thought I might end my reflections on NTU with this idea.
I don’t invoke it in any new age, go-to-the spa-to-fight-stress kind of way, but as an meme that traversed through NTU, SCI, and the new media and cinema worlds I encountered across Southeast Asia and India.
I heard and read a lot about "Asian Values."
I am not sure I ever fully—after two different stints teaching and researching in Asia—understood it.
Some analysts argue that Buddhism infuses cultural values in Southeast Asia, stressing a non-confrontational way that emphasizes social harmony. It's a survival strategy: without social harmony, people in poor communities would not thrive. They needed each other.
Other analysts have pointed out that Southeast Asian culture (if one can generalize, given the enormous economic and cultural differences in the region, where some countries like Vietnam and Laos are communist, some like Singapore global capitalist, some like Thailand and Malaysia emerging economies, etc) is not direct, but indirect, finding ways to suggest critique that do not feel assaultive. It is a high context, rather than low context, culture.
Another book interpreted the term as an ideological and postcolonial countermove to the so-called west that saw Asian communications systems as less than open, more prone to state censorship and regulatory controls. "Asian values" signified the differences in interpretation of terms like censorship, freedom of expression, free press, to emphasize distinctions in Asia, and Asia’s need to self-define media and communications practices. It was a subtle way to refuse the imposition of western values of individualism, free expression, etc.
But the definitions I liked (and understood) the best were offered by one of my SCI colleagues, who explained Asian values with two metaphors, Zen koans that are major take-aways for me.
The first was an expression: stroke the neck of the tiger when it attacks you.
The second: If you want to understand Asian values, just look at all the round tables in any dim sum restaurant.