Sunday, March 4, 2012

Culture-jamming student affairs

Many things get repeated, to the death, on the Internet. One idea catches on, explodes across your Facebook newsfeed and Twitter, and then quickly gets ground down and any sort of innovation in the original act is quickly meted out of the product. Such was the case very quickly with the "What I Actually Do" meme, ostensibly playing on irony of the misconceptions individuals at different vantage points in our society have of what we do in our careers.

The interesting thing about this meme was how, with little variation, seemingly every one was about how soul-crushing "what [I, we] actually do" was: a person, slumped in front of computers or in offices or in libraries surrounded by books. If one had to say what was a common uniting factor amongst almost all people, it would be abject misery in the face of alienation, weariness, and stress. Of course, this observation is not originally mine.

I created this image, intending to simply post it and let it out there where it could create all sorts of discomfort and tension: what did he mean by this? Motivational speaking on Twitter? What does Dean Pelton mean? Before posting it to my Facebook account or on the #sachat feed, I realized that it would require a context and frame for it be properly understood, and for the discomfort implicit in it to be realized in a way that won't cause people to shut down from my message. But the intent was to culture-jam, in my own act of resistance against the idea that student affairs really was any of the things it pretended it to be. In a way, I saw the irony of the original Student Affairs meme message ("What People Think I Do") turned into an unironic perspective on what we imagined other people imagined us as. It was not merely a humorous imagining of how other people don't understand what we do, but a realization of our fantasies, if we were to project them onto the other individuals imagination in place of their imaginations. Hence, this alternate, darker vision.

Some things about the image remain unedited, mostly for their unintended irony. "What I think I do" has particularly ironic overtones as an overwhelmingly white professional field can share the idea that they are Nelson Mandela has a curious implication. The final image, to be clearly explained, is an illustration of the concept of Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon". Bentham's conception of the ideal prison, where one is observed in perpetuity, is at the core of much of our function in the university. We provide activities for students, alternatives to drinking, enforcement of policies when they are violated, and a structured outlet of energies. Advisers serve just as much as a guide to student groups navigating the complex bureaucracy of the university as they do mechanisms of control, as agents of the university institution. (Note: I would offer two competing visions of the role of an individual like us in the system: as members of the university community and members of the university institution. Predominantly, we tend to fall in one area as actors.)

The concept of the panopticon was about mind control, ultimately: individuals would never know whether or not they were being watched, and conform to obedience because any time they took acts of resistance they would never know if they were being watched and therefore about to be quickly punished or if they were unobserved. In the absence of confirmation of observation, individuals would have to monitor themselves at all times to prevent them from falling out of line. Does this situation exist precisely in universities today? No. But there are shades of truth in it.

Which is the point of culture jamming: to take an object from it's current framing (i.e., a Barbie doll in a department store, communicating feminine norms to young women), and then disembed it from its context. If we take that Barbie doll figure out of the box and then place a "I Support Planned Parenthood" miniature picket sign and a tiny miniature roll of condoms there, we've created new Pro-Women's Health Barbie, a cultural message that would never be welcomed by Mattel. If we are indeed the watchers, as I would suggest through this particular culture-jammed meme, we should at least be watching ourselves - including the underlying truths we aim to tell about ourselves.

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