Monday, June 14, 2010

Suspended Time

At my university the big campus story today made it all the way to the Los Angeles Times. Thus "UC Irvine seeks to suspend Muslim student union" describes how what has become an extremely controversial student organization is facing discipline as a result of disrupting a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

In a fourteen-page disciplinary letter, campus officials detail their case against the organization as a whole and draw on digital evidence from a Google Group, an online video, and the group's pro-demonstration blog, "Stand With The Eleven," to make the argument that MSU members collectively had engaged in an orchestrated obstruction of a core campus activity comparable to "teaching, research, administration" when they prevented an invited speaker from speaking.

In a difficult-to-explicate e-mail from last month, Chancellor Drake had also indicated his concern that "endorsement of terrorism" had been supported by the MSU at other campus events. Thus, the decision to suspend the group might not be terribly surprising, although the Muslim Student Union website also includes community service announcements and even information about campus tutoring.

Of course, I can't help wondering if the case would have been handled differently had it not been publicized by the viral video below, which received some three-quarters of a million views: "Uncivilized Tactics at UC Irvine."

This nearly identical version of the event received over 350,000 views, and there are many other similar videos with the same footage on YouTube, some of which are retitled with names like "Muslims Try To Silence Israeli Ambassador at UC Irvine" and "Jew Haters Protest Israeli Ambassador" and "Muslim Students Union at UC Irvine act like terrorst fascists - against free speech." All of these videos create a negative impression of the campus community, which was picked up by conservative media outlets arguing that colleges teach radical politics not constructive subject matter.

Since I am working on a new book about universities and digital content-creation, I have been thinking about this incident a lot, as I consider what to say about student activism and new media representations of it online. Looking at images of student protests from the past that have used conventional techniques for composition and editing in photography and film, my main question is how contemporary online images of student unrest are different. Certainly, they often aren't as artfully and professionally produced in the conventional journalistic sense, as the aestheticized iconography of campus demonstrations of the sixties certainly was. In other words, how do new ubiquitous recording devices make chaotic scenes seem even more chaotic?

Granted, in the case of the MSU heckling, the most watched clips aren't from cell phone footage and aren't shot without a tripod. However, the viral video frequently pans and zooms in ways that suggest amateur videography that is both more "true" and more difficult to watch and make sense of.

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