Critical Interrogations of Institution and Self: Watershed and Spring 2019
In “The Neoliberal Institution of Culture and the Critique of Culturalization,” Dusan Grlja and Jelena Vesic discuss an art collective that “sought ways to break with existing structures by moving toward the constitution of a new framework for politics and culture” (Grlja and Vesic). They furthered this by saying that this collective critiqued not only institutions but a “kind of criticism that entails a self-criticism whereby one reflects upon his/her own role as well as the effects and the repercussions of one’s own actions” (Grlja and Vesic). In following suit, this semester’s Watershed collective launched a powerful series of pieces that both criticized institution, self, and all the spaces between the two. As I reread this semester’s posts, I jokingly thought that this is moment where the fighting gloves came out, where the Watershed team took a critical eye and pointed it in every direction they could.
No, there are no real boxing matches between Watershed members, but this semester proved the collective’s ability to provide a critical voice in a time that otherwise feels chaotic. Some posts critiqued complicity within institutions, pointing to critical moments of commodity and materialism. Other posts interrogated cultural institutions in television, the internet, and pedagogies. Even more posts tackled the harder subjects of criticizing self, in questioning their roles in larger cultural institutions. It was a powerful, intense, and altogether thrilling semester here on Watershed. Here’s some of the work we did.
In the first post of the semester, Regan Levitte showed us what fandom could teach us about critiquing institutions. Here, she explored the notions of feminist repurposing, a practice wherein writers call attention to damaging conditions within culture and reimagine resistive possibilities. Levitte points to the fan practice of changing race, sexuality, and genders of characters as a powerful exercise of agency – which she concludes can help us critically grow as writers.
Next, Anne Nagel interrogated the institution of the American Dream and the material and consumer domesticity that often accompanies it. Nagel argued for a new sort of materialism, one that calls on the popular Kondo method of living with less things and knowing that the things you have matter here. She calls back to a time of Victorian materialism, where the home was a private decorous refuge. Ultimately, Nagel argues an examination of self and culture in moving toward disruption of compulsive consumption.
Keshia Mcclantoc provides a critical examination of the capitalistic mechanism of femvertising, in which companies use watered-down feminism branding to sell products. Mcclantoc is critical of this practice, noting that it would work with neither Marxist nor Socialist feminisms. However, she then turns to an interrogation of self and asks what type of rural literacies we may be hindering when we admonish methods of spreading feminist messages.
Regan Levitte returns in a critical discussion of both the Western academy and the writing center. Here, her lens is twofold – both presenting the Marxist critique of the academy and privatization of writing as a commodity and by looking at the way collaboration, revisions, and review is done in the writing center. Levitte argues that the notion of negotiating via writing center consultations can disrupt the commodity culture of the neoliberal institution but can also put writers in a precarious position.
In looking toward a cultural institution that many do not think of, Linda J. Pawlenty discusses the discourse of movement in the truck driving industry. Pawlenty points toward the multiplicity of movement, looking at the physical and very stationary practice of driving, the restricted and barred movements that truckers face in their journeys, and the consumable movement of seeing, encountering, and listening to what happens along the way. These movements can help us better understand and restructure thinking on the commodity of labor in truck-driving.
In the next Watershed post Colten White explores the theory of network ontologies as a measure of seeing the world as interconnected nodes. White offers that social-justice pedagogies within the academy are not doing enough, that they must seek to develop methodologies grounded in the potential of network ontologies. This mode of teaching allows educators to rethink educational institutions and their students subjectivity within it.
Christian Rush and Gina Keplinger team up to preview the spring semester’s first Humanities on the Edge speaker, Wendy Chun. Here, Keplinger and Rush enumerate on Chun’s ideas of social media as its own unique culture and institution, positing that we must seek to criticize and desegregate these spaces just as we would any other institutions.
In her review of Wendy Chun, Ilana Masad discusses Chun’s compelling and unique lecture. Masad covers the central points of Chun’s lecture – the use of AI to debunk “fake news,” the cultivating of segregated echo chambers in digital spaces, and what authenticity means in an internet age. According to Masad, Chun’s talk focused on both the macro critique of digital spaces as institutions themselves while also calling on micro work on self, asking, what can we do to understand ourselves in an age of big data?
Rachel Cochran returns us to a centrally focused critique of the academic institution and the question of self. Here, Cochran examines the ever so prevalent imposter syndrome, in which academics experience feelings of inadequacy. She posits that imposter syndrome seems like the natural reaction to the confidence culture proliferated by academic pressures and rigors. Ultimately, she argues that we share our imposter syndrome, bringing it from an isolated experience to a collective one.
In moving away from the academy, Michelle Trantham examines and analyzes the culture of spoiling. This move, in which fans share what happens in a book, movie, or other artifact of popular culture before others are able to experience it, is one that Trantham despises. However, in following with an ethic of interrogation, she articulates the psychology behind the thrill of spoiling as a collective fan movement.
Christy Hyman's piece explores the impact of cultural memory and critiques early twentieth century historians who refused to believe enslaved testimonies. Hyman points out the ramifications of these practices, and how decades of silencing epistemological violence cultivated the notions of slaver as beneficial. She concludes by arguing that historians and sociologists alike must make better efforts to include multilayered perspectives of record.
Linda J. Pawlenty interrogates that way that people discuss women in traditionally “masculine work,” returning to truck driving as her medium. She critiques how language and images are used to undermine women’s potential in these spaces and argues that we must share these stories of gender disparities to make any sort of difference.
In a critique of television, Adam Hubrig points toward the crip ethos used in a new Hulu series, “The Act.” Hubrig argues that the underlying message of this series, even if based on a true story, is one that promotes the myth that people with disabilities are faking it, making their symptoms to be worse than they actually are, or are other-wise tricking abled people in some fashion. He argues that television has hardly any disabled representation but while it continues to use that small percentage of representation to cultivate crip ethos, nothing can get better.
Teaming up again, Christian Rush and Gina Keplinger give a preview of the latest Humanities on the Edge speaker, Charlotte Biltkoff. Rush and Keplinger outline the ways that Biltkoff questions trust in food, transparency of the food industry, and agricultural technologies.
Finally, Ilana Massad closed the semester with a review of Charlotte Biltkoff. Here, Masad discusses Biltkoff’s arguments on food industries, anti-GMO activists, and expansive food waste. Biltkoff argues that these institutions must be critiqued to better pursue a politics of truth, one that should include all aspects of our life, even food.
As a collective, the Watershed team did an amazing job this semester turning a critical eye to the institutions that we all seem to participate in. It was a compelling and interesting collection to read, one that encouraged me to question my own affiliations and beliefs. I do not find unhappiness in this task, but rather, I am thankful for the ways that this collection of posts has informed and pushed me into learning more. It has been a riveting body of work to experience.
And as always, the Watershed team is grateful to the English Department at UNL and Dr. Marco Abel. I especially want to thank the wonderful Watershed Administrative team, Gina Keplinger, Christian Rush, and Jonathan Cheng, whose hard work keeps this theorizing machine running. Thank you for leading us through the semester. Watershed will return in Fall 2019, with voices new and old – I cannot wait to see where else we can go.
Grjla, Dusan, and Jelena Vesic. “The Neoliberal Institution of Culture and the Critique of Culturalization.” The Neoliberal Institution of Culture and the Critique of Culturalization :: New Museum, 11 Apr. 2014, www.newmuseum.org/blog/view/the-neoliberal-institution-of-culture-and-the-critique-of-culturalization.