Tag Archives: digital humanities

research

Digital Ethnography Paper Is Out!

Digital Ethnography article in JDH byWendy Hsu

I’m thrilled to announce that my article entitled “Digital Ethnography Toward Augmented Empiricism: A Methodological Framework” is finally out in the latest issue of Journal of Digital Humanities. This paper is the culmination of a series of making, coding, experimenting, writing, and reframing efforts to redefine the role of ethnography in the age of digital information. I open with the following provocation:

Culture takes variegated forms, including lived experiences, social interactions, memories, rituals, transactions, events, conversations, stories, gestures, and expressive disciplines like music and dance. These processes and artifacts of social life make an ethnographer’s job as analyst and cultural documentarian dynamic and challenging. The increasing digital mediation in the field of ethnographic inquiry is undeniable. Through the engagement of individual users, governments, corporations, and even grassroots organizations, the ubiquity of computational technology has a far-reaching impact on social life. These technologies mediate culture by documenting, sharing, sensing, tagging, locating, trading, synchronizing, filtering, automating, remixing, and mining the everyday experiences of our research associates. Rather than walking away from the digital, we ethnographers should give serious considerations to software as infrastructure and materiality at the sites of our research. We should also be mindful of our own digital research practices as we utilize digital technology to organize, manage, and publish our field findings.

A preview of what my paper delves into:

In this article, I examine how working with a variety of digital tools, including webscraping, mapping, and sound visualization, could widen the scope of ethnographic work and deepen our practice. I stay within the domain of data gathering in part one. In part two, I talk about the process of interpreting field data and the value of geospatial visualizations. The last part explores digital methods that magnify our perception of physical senses like sound, sight, and space. Throughout these discussions, I will also comment on the methodological, and where relevant, the social implications of these approaches.

Finally, I end with the call:

In this article, I examine how working with a variety of digital tools, including webscraping, mapping, and sound visualization, could widen the scope of ethnographic work and deepen our practice. I stay within the domain of data gathering in part one. In part two, I talk about the process of interpreting field data and the value of geospatial visualizations. The last part explores digital methods that magnify our perception of physical senses like sound, sight, and space. Throughout these discussions, I will also comment on the methodological, and where relevant, the social implications of these approaches.

This paper wouldn’t be possible without the thoughtful feedback from Bethany Nowiskie, Tricia Wang, and JDH editor Stephanie Westcott; and support from the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab (special shoutout to Joe Gilbert!) and Occidental College’s Center for Digital Learning + Research. I am grateful of you.

For those who are code-curious, I appended the webscraper code to the article.

 

building research teaching

Toward a sound-based scholarship

[I'm cross-posting this from the Digital Summer Institute's blog at Oxy. This post is meant to ignite some conversations on alternative argumentation from the perspective of sound.]

To forward the theme of digital and media fluency for this year’s DSI, I’d like to start a conversation about the role of audio and sound in multimedia scholarship. There are, of course, obvious applications of sound in fields such as musicology and media studies. But I would like to broaden the engagement with sound to non-music-specific disciplines. There are a few ways to think about this. I will outlinen these approaches in the following:

1. Soundscape: In ethnographic scholarship, there is an emerging practice of sound-specific fieldwork. Some of this scholarship is based on the work of Pierre Schaeffer, a composer and philosopher who coined the term “musique concrete” to radically consider environmental sounds as being musical. In the case of field research, anthropologists have considered the observations of sound as a cultural practice. This could be useful for the urban studies. For instance, what is the soundscape of a working-class neighborhood that is bounded by highways and factories? Carey has written a fantastic post about her “sonification of social life” assignment. In terms of research, a couple of examples of a soundscape-based multimedia ethnography include the Unspeakable Things series hosted by Sensate Journal;  a map of sound segmentation of Jerusalem. There’s also a group out of the anthropology department at UC Irvine that is interested in sound-specific inquiries.

2. Sonic representation of culture: Sound can be a medium to represent culture and knowledge. Some humanistic scholars and journalists have begun to convey their works in the form of a podcast, radio documentary, oral history, and digital storytelling. Here, we can begin to explore about the role of sound in structuring writing and composition assignments for students; and to make space for students to develop critical listening skills for analyzing audio-based scholarly content. An example of scholarly podcasts is the Pop Conference podcast series hosted on the Experience Music Project iTunesU.

New addition: Also check out Jentery Sayers’ syllabus for “Sonic Culture and Media Activism” for exemplary analysis and making assignments On sound as culture.

3. Sonification of non-sound-specific texts: An emerging group of non-music researchers have looked at their objects of study by bringing works into the sonic domain. This approach can be particularly useful for the study of poetry, theater, and (foreign) language. A compelling example of this kind of research is Tanya Clement’s use of sound tools to explore patterns of sound in Gertrude Stein’s poetry.

On the side of teaching, both Suzanne and I integrated audio assignments into our CSP courses last fall. Suzanne did a fan autoethnography assignment. In my CSP course on Race and Gender in Popular Music, the first assignment is a musical autobiography. I asked my students to not only locate their own personal connections to music but to also embody their voice in a sonic form. A rather radical approach to bring writing into sonic and vocal register, I asked my students to record their own autobiography, using Audacity, in their own voice. This assignment is inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s “Experimental Critical Writing” course syllabus.

The reason for constructing this assignment is that I often see students attempting to sound “scholarly” in writing. The purpose of this exercise was to disabuse them of their notions of having to sound scholarly. Instead of sounding like a generic scholar, whatever that is in their heads, I wanted them to take control, to reclaim their own voice, and to embody argumentative writing on their own terms. I asked them to record their own autobiography in their own voice. I also asked them to integrate meaningful sounds into their recording. After they posted their sonic autobiography, I asked them to do a critical listening exercise: What do your voice sound like? Do you have a confident voice? Timid? Anxious? Casual? Informal? Cogent? Introspective?

Here’s an example of a student’s musical autobiography as shared on SoundCloud (a sound-based community where users post, share, and comment on audio works). In this example, the student integrated sounds that represent her early experiences of music.

 

building research

A multimodal musical analysis: visualizing diaspora

Since I work in the CDLR, I get to raise all kinds of wild questions that don’t fall into the purview of traditional, disciplinary bound scholarship. To prepare for my presentation at the Pop Conference (instituted by Experience Music Project in Seattle), this year combined with IASPM-US (International Association for the Study of Popular Music), I became preoccupied with the question: “How do I visualize a music analysis about space and place?”

My paper extends my dissertation work on The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band tied to the alternative Muslim subculture self-labeled as Taqwacore. In this paper, I chose to focus on the band’s music. Through a couple of song readings, I investigate the form and content of diasporic spaces as articulated by the band’s music. I argue that this unique geo-musical formation discursively moves seamlessly between a conventional notion of diaspora—migration of people away from an ancestral homeland—and a minority-centered, multi-diasporic space. Through a recent engagement with multimodal scholarship, I challenged myself to think beyond writing, a mode that conventionally represents academic work. I already use the concepts such as cartography and mapping as metaphors. Why should I limit the expression of my ideas to text only? Why not create a map of my music analysis especially since it’s about space and place?

Visualizing a musical analysis is nothing new. Music theorists have used music notations to represent sonic patterns key in their interpretation. More recently, theorists and information scientists used computational means to process sonic materials for patterns. Visualization became a way to explore patterns, bringing sounds into a (visual) domain that were previously inaccessible with the human senses.

My paper, however, does not engage with the use of the computational technologies to process sonic materials. It does something rather old-school. It simply draws several points on a map and then links them. It does not overlay demographic or musical data. It displays a couple of different geographical formations that illustrate the changing contour of a musical diaspora, a geographical space comprised of lyrical, sonic, and choreographic references. [I deployed Josh Kun’s concept of “audiotopia” to argue for the social and cultural effects of this geo-musical space.]

I began with a hand-drawn map. I used the Penultimate app on my iPad.

I quickly realized that my hand drawn diagram is not only messy but almost illegible. Through searching and playing, I settled with the web-based mapping program Scribble Maps to map this unique diasporic spaces. Using features such as vector graphics, media imports, and baselayer settings, I created a couple of maps that best approximate the geo-musical entities for which I argue in my analysis.

This map articulates The Kominas’ worldview. I positioned South Asia in a visually central spot, with the cultural region of Punjab and the city of Lahore highlighted. The song “Par Desi” articulates this geographical formation:

The song’s title explicitly figures the South Asian diaspora. Vocally and lyrically, the song evokes an ethnic and geographical quandary. The singer and bassist Basim’s voice shivers as he sings the chorus line, ‘In Lahore it’s raining water, in Boston it rains boots.’ The subject in the song defines his physical home in Boston, where he experienced an assault by skinhead punks. He sings, ‘They tried to stomp me out, but they only fueled the flame.’ The song narrates a history of migration and the emotions of displacement. It raises the questions, ‘Where do I point to blame, when men scatter like moths? /…  how’d I get here, from a land with long monsoons?’

The song’s references to traditional bhangra, a dance music genre that originated in Punjab, further complicates this geo-musical formation. In my analysis, I argue that the band projects a transnational bhangra-punk sound:

An 8-second analog sample of live bhangra percussion comes into the musical present. Immediately, this sample transports me, the listener, away from the emotional space of the lament. Continuing the triplet pattern of the bhangra sample, the band transforms the bhangra rhythm into a collective punk-style chanting of ‘la-la-la’ in the final section of the song. This chant rejoices in the form of a Clash-like punk choir, roughly in unison with a distorted guitar.

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This bhangra-punk aesthetic is projected from a South-Asian- or desi-identified ethnic space: imagined somewhere between Punjab, 1970s punk England, and present-day home in the northeastern United States. The Kominas, I contend, elides its physical home in Boston and the U.S.; at the same time, the band self-consciously embeds itself into historical punk England to reclaim a new musical home.

I discovered a different but related diasporic configuration in “Tunnnnnn.” This song articulates a minoritarian, multi-diasporic space.

The Kominas alludes to the original roots reggae version of the song (“Armagideon Time” Jamaican artist by Willi Williams). In doing so, the band resituates their version of the song into a Rastafari time-space. The Kominas locates its own battleground, while borrowing from the Rastafari visions of Armageddon.

I hear The Kominas calling for its own ‘Armagideon,’ in the new lyrics written in Punjabi. According to Basim’s translation, the first verse states: ‘We will only drink that / That they are drinking in Iraq / We will only drink that / that they would drink in Karballah (sic).’ It is not a coincidence that both Iraq and Karbala are iconic battle sites both in the past and present. The War in Iraq after the events on September 11 has been a topical preoccupation by The Kominas since its first album (entitled Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay). The band has made clear its stance of castigating the western world, in particular the United States, for waging a war motivated by Islamophobia, militarism, and imperialism. Following the Punjabi lyrics, Basim evokes the overthrow of 21st century Babylonians. In English, he sings the lines, ‘A lot of people won’t get justice tonight / A lot of people wont’ get no supper tonight / Just remember to / Kick it over / And praise Jehovah / And kick it out.’

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The Kominas’ musical alliance with roots reggae, the music of those in Jamaica as well as the Jamaican immigrants, rewrites the history of the racial dynamics in 1960s and 1970s England. Challenging the history of “paki-bashing” in England, The Kominas’ music prominently figures the South Asian subjectivity. This musical geography has discursively reorganized the racial relations between blackness, whiteness, and Asianness. It also forges a musical alliance between a South Asian American band and the Afro-Caribbeans in Jamaica and the U.K..

In its overlays, these maps bring into relief various sites of geopolitics related to postcolonial struggles. This spatial articulation, I contend, is a minority-centered project of reterritorialization. It points away from the band’s physical home in the United States to re-focus on geographical sites symbolic of resistance. Its identification with loci of anti-white-supremacy and anti-imperialism, I argue, is a response to the post-9/11 social alienation and melancholia. Through the creative adaptations of Punjabi musical roots and transnational routes via the U.K., Jamaica, and Lahore, the band has built a psycho-social home in its music.

Coda: These two maps are extensions of my work at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab where I made a series of Myspace friendship distribution maps of a handful of bands (including The Kominas) featured in my dissertation. I’m happy that I’m in the position to use experimental and digital methods to further my explorations of the relationship between pop music and postcolonial geography. This cluster of ideas and modes of inquiry truly excites me.

 

 

 

 

 

research

SEM/AMS/SMT Call for Abstract: Digital (Ethno)Musicology

For SEM 2012, I plan to form a panel on the theme of digital/computational explorations within and around the disciplines of ethnomusicology, musicology, amd music theory. The panel would be titled “Digital (Ethno)Musicology.” In this session, the panelists would address the ways in which, via an engagement with digital media and technology, they have extended and transformed the conventional modes of music research and inquiries: archival and sonic analysis, fieldwork, and ethnographic representation. Since this is a combined meeting with AMS and SMT, I welcome panelists with predominantly musicological inquiries as well.

I plan to present some work that I did in my dissertation on the Asian American experiences of playing independent rock music, using my Myspace scraping/mapping project as a case study of digital ethnography to discuss the implications of computational field research methods in the study of contemporary music-culture. Theoretically, this paper will revisit the notion of of cyberpunk in the context of the racial politics related to Asian identities on the Internet.

Any takers? Anyone interested in being a part of this panel? Abstracts are due January 17. In order get the submission ready in time, I would need to have a draft of your paper abstract by January 15 or so. Contact me via email (hsuw [at] oxy.edu) or Twitter (@wendyfhsu) if you are interested!

For amusement, here’s a video of my early attempt at becoming a cyborg:

performance research video

A Preview: My Off-SEM Video

I’m making a video in lieu of my physical presence at the Society of Ethnomusicology meeting in Philadelphia this weekend. My intention is to insert this video — on performance = public scholarship — into the (virtual) mix at the conference. I plan to release this video on Youtube and on this blog by the time of my scheduled presentation at SEM tomorrow morning at 10AM EST. I’m bummed that I will not be able to join you in person. But my sound and body will be with you in a virtual and hopefully meaningful way this weekend. Here I’m leaking a couple of pictures from the making of this video:

pop culture & media research

ViCKi LEEKX, Cyberpunk, and Me – A Digital Postcolonial Critique

At a coffee shop in downtown Dover, New Hampshire, I get a tweet from The Kominas about M.I.A.’s latest mixtape Vicki Leekx. I follow hyperlink included in the tweet and land on a blog post on MTVDesi that ruthlessly critiques M.I.A.’s mixtape (this post has been removed for some reason). The author claims that Vicki Leekx is the beginning of the end of MIA’s career. Meanwhile, The Kominas carries on a short conversation with its friend @bdvz in Sydney, both expressing support for M.I.A.’s politico-musical agenda. Quickly pointing at another link, I jump to M.I.A.’s mixtape site, created exclusively for her listeners to download her mixtape. A simple website, Vickleekx.com is presented with a design scheme reminiscent of web pages of the early to mid 1990s. A mash up of low-tech-looking images includes on the right, a large spinning globe, and the left, two identical overlapping screenshots of a browser window, a large “ViCKi LEEKX” banner in a shiny visually loud golden font. After downloading and zooming on the “clip art” graphics below the banner, hacking my way through the visual scheme of the website, I discover further graphical details, for instance, the text “United States Federal Reserve System” the embalm superimposed over an image of a globe. Other textual and image iconography of the Internet, I think, represents the polemics regarding freedom of speech and global communication in the so-called Internet age [image below]. Finally I click on the giant red “DOWNLOAD” button on the bottom of the page to download the mixtape file. Now listening to M.I.A. rapping about media freedom and Sri Lankan shoutouts over thirty-something-minute continuous mashup comprised of digital blips and samples of media cliche, I continue to browse the web.

Figure xx: Screenshot of Vickileekx.com, captured on January 12, 2011.

Born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, M.I.A. is a British rapper of Sri Lankan descent whose claim to fame worldwide was her song “Paper Planes” on the soundtrack of blockbuster hit Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle 2008). Daughter of a Tamil political activist, M.I.A.’s music centralizes political themes, especially toward immigrant rights, and expresses an audacity to challenge governmental and corporate authorities. Around the time she released her third album Maya in spring 2010, M.I.A. began to speak up about information politics and Internet censorship. In the midst of the heated discussions about WikiLeaks, over the exposing of confidential governmental and corporate documents via the Internet, the rapper expressed a public support for WikiLeaks. Last November, M.I.A. made an announcement of her (Internet) alter ego dubbed as Vicki Leekx.

Vicki Leekx is not a direct endorsement of, but a project perhaps inspired by WikiLeaks. Similar to WikiLeaks, M.I.A.’s alter ego (and mixtape) characterizes a possibility for social changes through disseminating cultural content on the Internet. WikiLeaks has posed a threat to national security; the U.S., China, Iceland, and Australia have filed lawsuits against the website. It has challenged the internatinoal financial infrastructures maintained by corporate power and control. Similarly, M.I.A.’s “Vicki Leekx” project targets those of media, cultural, and political power. Perhaps her penchant for conceiving of the Internet as a free space is affirmed by her recent battle with media censorship. After finding out that Youtube had pulled her controversial music video of “Born Free”, M.I.A. self-released the video by hosting the video on her website and announcing the link, along with a disparaging remark on YouTube.

More explicitly than WikiLeakx, Vicki Leekx is positioned within a postcolonialist, pro-minoritarian struggle, a political context that M.I.A. has articulated in her music and social media. The term “Vicki Leekx” is a phonetic play on “Wiki Leaks.” The phonetic substitution of a V for a W inflects with a South Asian accent within English pronunciation. In ethnicizing the English pronunciation of WikiLeaks, M.I.A. evokes the less heard colonized subject position of the desi in her project.

M.I.A.’s postcolonialist cyberpunk mission of VickiLeekx should not have come as surprise. The rapper began a music leakage project by hosting un-released tracks on one-off websites with provocative domain names, and then sharing the links on Twitter. She set off this leaking rampage by announcing yesthelittlepeoplewillneverwinbuttheycanfuckshitup.com during her North American tour in September 2010. Equally actively, M.I.A. shares news stories about politics around immigration, war crimes, and refugees from Sri Lanka on Twitter. She sometimes couples news story links with web leakage of un-released tracks. Along with a link to a news story about the asylum seekers in Australia, M.I.A. announced a newly created website called 4THEPEOPLEONTHEBOAT.com. Upon visit, the website automatically streams M.I.A.’s song “You Can Have My Money, But You Can’t Have Me”, and displays 8-bit moving graphics of a suspended spinning globe targeted by four rotating firing guns. In an earlier tweet, M.I.A. explains, “I PUT THIS OUT! I KNOW THE MEDIA GIVES CREDIT TO WHITE DUDES! that white dude playin poker gif is literal.” With this music video site, M.I.A. has crystallized a connection between her network music project and her interest in engaging a new digital cultural warfare for “the boat” people. In December 2010, she provoked her digital mission in explicit terms: “WE GROWIN UP IN MIDDLE OF A DIGITAL RUKUS! THEY CAN TRY TO FUCK US, I AINT PUTTIN ON THE STOPPERS WE GO BE HACKERS.. meds+feds+ in bed !” M.I.A. screams, in all caps, in order to advocate for a cyberpunk revolution among immigrants, refugees, and other subaltern groups that she has shown alliance for in the past (Powers 2010). M.I.A. dropped the mixtape online making the file downloadable after midnight on January 1, 2011. Ten days after she self-released her mixtape, M.I.A. tweeted a picture of children of South Asian descent (Sri Lankan?) huddling around four desktop computers. She dubbed the image as “!V!I!C!K!I!L!E!E!K!X! STREET TEAM ! 11/1/11”.

In a way, leaking a national security document is similar to immigration, a leakage of citizenry. Both instances challenge the borders of a nation-state. Both are symbolic infractions of the integrity of nation-states. Foregrounding a “leaky” logic, M.I.A. has created an immigrant frontier on the Internet via Vicki Leekx and her other music websites. In this cyberpunk space, the figure of the immigrant is spotlighted. It no longer lives in threat or on fringes of illegality. It lives in comfort, legalistically and existentially. M.I.A. is the mastermind gamer-architect behind the design of this space between fiction and reality; in it, the immigrant makes up the legitimate citizenry. More than 160,000 of her followers on Twitter, including me, happily wander within and around it.

This cyberpunk frontier is unlike the Orientliast one as characterized by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in her contribution to edited volume AsianAmeric.Net (2003). Commenting on cyberpunk fiction and films of the 1980s to 1990s, Chun notes the racializing and engendering movements within the cyberspace. She highlights the dynamic of “high-tech Orientalism” in which an American (white) cowboy enters, through an act of penetration, into a disembodied, virtual space of erotic fantasies of the Orient. High-tech Orientalism enables the cowboy to “erase his body in orgasmic ecstasy…such sexual fantasies and conquest, for this orgasmic ecstasy constructs cyberspace…as a solipsistic space” (2003: 15). M.I.A. is not an “Imperial console cowboy” (203:18). Playfully and performatively, M.I.A. identifies herself as a post-national immigrant orphan-child while stating a cyberpunk mission to tear down the imperialist structures.

In Cybertypes, Lisa Nakamura offers a critique of the discourses that characterize, overly optimistically, the Internet as a borderless space in which users, like tourists, can easily consume the culture and image of the distant Other. In this new media terrain, Asians, especially immigrants, are digitally type-casted or “cybertyped” as “exemplary information workers” (2002: 24). “The presence of black and brown faces from other countries, notably Asian ones, encourages white workers to inhabit a virtually diverse world, one where local racial problems are shuffled aside by a global and diasporic diversity created by talented immigrants as opposed to ‘hyphenated Americans.’ This is a form of tourism, benefiting from difference in order to make the American/Western self feel well-rounded, cosmopolitan, postracial” (2002: 22-3).

Not true. Not entirely. The Internet is not one giant blob of space. In fact, there is not one single cyber space, as there are multiple cyber spaces. And there are borders and boundaries—software- and hardware-dependent—that bind and separate these cyber spaces. During my digital field research, I discovered a hard server divide when I was harvesting locale data of the Myspace friends of The Hsu-nami, a New-Jersey-based band. The “bot” (program) that I wrote “broke” in the process of web-mining. In troubleshooting, I found that Myspace is in fact, not as global as it has promised itself to be. The Myspace user networks of all countries in the world exist in a server located in U.S., with the exception of the users of Myspace China. Hosted by a server in China, Myspace China is itself own space apart from the rest of Myspace networks in “the world.”[1]

In my research, I follow Nakamura’s critical race perspective, except that I, as a cybernetic investigator, place my investigative focus on a cultural process, more reparative than hers. I concentrate on the exploration of the alternative terrains and their associated borders reconfigured by individuals of Asian descent. As described in my last post, I have worked, through a set of digital tools, to highlight both global and diasporic particularity, centralizing the perspective of in-between subjectivity of both “hyphenated Americans” and their immigrant friends. What I’m after is not a postracial, but a post-national network built by musicians of various Asian affiliations.

Like M.I.A., I’m an immigrant child who relishes in the post-national space proffered by the Internet. Less a rapper/punk-diva figure than M.I.A., I’m a cyberpunk ethnographer. Or better yet, I’m a cyberpunk cartographer working to reconfigure this space however susceptible to sexual fantasy and imperial conquest. In a way, I am working to reorient the existing fantasies and desires projected by imperial and corporate cowboys. I am taking pleasures in navigating within and mapping a world created and occupied by people like me: marked by category of “Asian,” “immigrant,” or lost somewhere in the cracks between other geographical and social boundaries.


[1] The software disconnection between China and the United States (and the rest of the world) on Myspace is maybe a product of the financial and political relationship between the countries. In order to follow up this inquiry, one could search news stories about company structure and changes of Myspace. For more detail, read David Barboza’s article “Murdoch Is Taking MySpace to China”, April 27, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/27/business/worldbusiness/27myspace.html (accessed on January 13, 2011).

research

Mapping an Asian American Indie Rock Digital Diaspora

My dissertation project investigates the musical and social life of current independent rock musicians of Asian descent. This research looks at the music, interviews, and social interactions of these musicians. How do I do this?

Prior to working with UVa’s Scholars Lab, my method of field research had been participant observation: attending concerts, doing formal and informal interviews, interacting with the musicians’ friends and fans, listening to their recorded music, organizing local performances on their tours…an immersion in these musicians’ multi-faceted musical life. As soon as I began my field research, I discovered that the notion of “the field” has changed because of the prevalent usage of digital social media among the musicians of my study. The Internet, is no longer just a means of communication between me and my informants. Digital social media make up an important site of social interactions and creative expressions. Not only that, it is the key to social networking and community building for these musicians. Thus the “field” of my investigation came to include the digital social terrain that I navigate within the scope of dissertation research.

This post focuses on the map of one of the bands that I study: The Kominas. The Kominas is a South Asian American punk band that spawned in Boston, now based in Philadelphia. Recombining sounds from the Boston ska-and-crust-punk scene with 1970s Bollywood movies and Bhangra music from their parents’ dusty tape collection, The Kominas evokes a radically transnational sonic landscape. [Example “Par Desi”] Since 2006, the band has been vigorously creating a translocal social terrain via face-to-face interactions through touring and online social networking. The Kominas’ do-it-yourself network is comprised of Muslim-, South-Asian-identified, and other taqwacore-inspired musicians, listeners, artists, filmmakers, and bloggers.

In this post, I ask:  What does The Kominas’ “digital diaspora” look like geographically and spatially? First, I will describe the digital methods I used to map this community.

Digital Methods – Web-scraping and Visualization

To create such a map, I designed and executed out a two-phase method. Phase 1 is web-scraping, the process of mining data from the Internet. This process entails first, locating a source of useful geographic data, and then harvesting this information programmatically. I was interested in two sets of data, specifically: the physical location of the band’s performance tours; and the self-reported (physical) location of the friends in an online community. The first set of data, regarding performance locations, was found on The Kominas’ official website. The information regarding friend locations was found in its most complete form on the social networking site Myspace.

To extract and process these data sets, with the help of Joe Gilbert, I wrote a program using Ruby to parse out the relevant information in the source code of the profile pages of The Kominas’ Myspace friends. The Kominas [as of April 2010] had close to 3,000 friends on Myspace. These are all Myspace users who have requested to become friends with The Kominas, or vice versa. Using Mechanize, a Ruby gem, the program extracted all the geographically related text from the Myspace profile pages of 2,867 friends. Using the Geokit, a ruby gem that implements the Google Geocoder, the program translated this information into a set of spatial coordinates, specifically, latitude and longitude.

Phase 2 – geospatial visualization – is the process of turning the harvested data into a meaningful visualization. Using OpenLayers, an open-source mapping program, I created a dynamic map containing all the points of the physical locations of the band’s Myspace friends and performance tours. To contextualize the reading of the physical points, I added various map layers. For example, I added a Google street map layer to label the visualization with the proper name of countries and cities. The rest of my efforts were spent to refine the map, to make it readable and meaningful.

The Kominas’ Digital Diaspora Map: GO!

To interact with the map, click on the above image. This screenshot shows the global distribution of The Kominas’ Myspace friends. The reddish pink clusters represent the friend density in the respective locales. The size of the cluster is an approximate representation of the number of friends in one location.

A baselayer of the world’s regions – marked by various shades of green in the background – helps contextualize the friend distribution across continental boundaries. At a macro level, this map articulates a radically transnational and inter-continental distribution of friends. Areas of high friend density include: North America, Europe, and Asia. The story of translocality becomes more complex as we zoom in on the map to get more geographic detail. In my dissertation, combining maps, music analysis, and interviews, I examine how the members of The Kominas position themselves geographically and ethnically vis a vis this vastly transnational world.

Questions and Concerns

These maps tell a story, a particular kind of story that situates a humanist study of a music-culture within a particular geographic context. In the context of my dissertation, these maps add a spatial texture to the understanding of the translocal social terrain of a U.S.-based musicians of Asian descent. And the visualization process helps me to analyze the musicians’ questioning of their sense of ethnic and national belonging and to situate the ethnographic details of my 24-month field research within a global context.

Here are some more general questions and concerns that I’ve encountered in creating and using these dynamic maps. To express density using a clustering pattern, I used an algorithm that balances point density and readability, so that the contrast between the smallest and the largest clusters is adjusted. In this case, a single-point cluster can be seen and the largest concentration of the friends of the northeast of the United States doesn’t dominate the entire map. This presents the question, am I interested in representing the mathematical reality of this friend community? Or is there some part of the story that I was more interested in telling? Which level of detail is most useful?

I’ve discovered that these maps do not provide any answers to my research questions. They, in fact, present an interpreted reality that generate further useful questions. A map is certainly not a dissertation chapter; but it provides a spatial and geographical context for the musical and social experiences of the musicians in my study.

How I use these maps, of course, depends on the narrative that I want to tell. At a very macro, global level, zoomed all the way out, these maps can look very similar across bands: with large clusters in the North American region, some clustering in Europe, and some but less in other regions of the world. NOT SO INTERESTING…

Of interest to me, in my dissertation, are the patterns of the band’s transnational connections to musicians and fans in Asia. What is the band’s friend distribution in Asia? Is it useful to compare the Asia-based friend distribution across band? I have shown two screenshots of two bands’ friend distribution in Asia. On the top is The Kominas. On the bottom is Kite Operations, a New-York-based noise rock band.

This comparison presents interesting results: These two maps show that The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band has created a social geography much more concentrated in South and Southeast Asia; whereas Kite Operations, with 3/4 of the members being of Korean descent, has stronger friend presence in East Asia, specifically in South Korea. The difference in friend distribution shown by these images can provide a sketch for illustrating a different “Asia” as created through the cultural practice of “friending” on Myspace by American artists of Asian descent.

Combining Digital Methods with “Conventional Methods”

These digital methods seem to have an orthogonal relation to more conventional ethnographic methods. Until these new digital methods become accepted in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology, I must find a way to integrate the new with the old. [Yes, I have thought-experimented with a set of digitally engaged ethnographic methods.] Here are some ideas for this integration:

  • Showing the map to the musician-informants: Asking them if they are surprised by the results of my study. Asking them questions about how they feel about these places in the world? Personal or musical connections to these places?
  • Toward a Geospatial Music Analysis: Many musicians that I study are pre-occupied with geography. In their lyrics, they often discuss being trapped or living in a limbo between two worlds. They talk about their feelings regarding certain meaningful place and space in their music. It’d be potentially fruitful to juxtapose the musical and social geographies of a single band.
  • Mapping genre/sonic differences: Here I suggest the possibility of incorporating sonic qualities such as tempo, timbre, volume, studio effects, and language/dialect into geospatial information technology and system. Such a tool would be immensely powerful for the study of the world’s music-cultures at the local and global level. For example, the World Musical Map project by Ozan Aksoy based at the New Media Lab at the Graduate Center of CUNY explores the rupture between audio boundaries and actual national borders. Another example is Lee Byron’s visualization of the listening history on Last.FM.

Here’s my attempt to start a digital (ethno)musicology. Are there any other takers?

The Kominas’ Digital Diaspora Map: It’s Your Turn. GO!

Tips:

  • Double-click to zoom in on the map
  • Upper-left: turn on/off various layers: Google Street/Satellite; world’s regions; Muslim-majority countries; clusters (friend density); friends (individual points); gigs.
  • Scroll on the map by clicking + holding + moving the cursor
research

A Digital(-Humanist) Ethnography – a re-post from THATCampVA

I’m participating in the THATcampVA unconference hosted by UVa’s Scholars’ Lab in a few weeks. I wrote a session proposal in order to generate interest for my topic. I decided to write something rather abstract, imaginative and hopefully evocative. This is the beginning of my efforts to instigate a series of conversations about digital field research and ethnographic writing.

I’m an ethnographer of contemporary rock music-cultures. And I love the experimental spirits among digital humanists. At THATcampVA, I would like to re-imagine the possibility of a digital ethnography. My main question is: how can digital technology facilitate field research and ethnographic ‘writing’?

Rather than texts, ethnographers’ objects of intellectual interest are social interactions and cultural practices. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, whose primary mode of research has been participant-observation, have conventionally privileged the traditional, non-mediated, live, and experiential over the fixed, mediated, and textual, in their field participation. In the last decade or so, they have started to see the value in studying non-physical and mediated, and oftentimes software environments, thereby extending the notion of the ‘field.’ How may digital tools facilitate the processes of observing and participating in these newly defined “fields” that are now digitally mediated? Email and engagement with social media are becoming a normative mode of interaction for many individuals in many societies. Many ethnographers use digital communication methods to find, reach, and contact their informants. In my dissertation (on the Asian American experiences of indie rock music), I spent countless hours locating musicians online, using either Google or social network sites such as Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and Last.FM. How can we as ethnographers, besides hanging out in a chat room or on a discussion forum, take a snapshot of these digital social media interactions? What are the social, political, and institutional implications of such digital contacts, versus conventional methods of flying to a distant location and meeting someone face-to-face? Digitally mediated communication allows the user to reach far. It is a technology of horizontal expansion. What does “in-depth” fieldwork look like in the milieu where communication is often digitally mediated?

Ethnographic writing involves a set of processes distinct but related to field research. What technological extensions may further the tasks of documenting, analyzing, articulating, and representing field observations and interactions? In my dissertation, I leveraged a geo-spatial visualization tool to map the Myspace “friend” networks of the musicians in my dissertation. These visualizations enabled me see patterns of social linkage that I hadn’t anticipated. They also allowed me to generate more questions about ethnic belonging and transnational communities. So, what other digital methods could extend our capacities as ethnographic documentarians and analysts? What are the intellectual advantages (and disadvantages) of digitizing an otherwise live and non-mediated experience or interaction?

Digital humanists have developed an emerging set of sophisticated theories around the issues of texualization and archiving. To relate to these inquiries, I find that it may be useful to consider the act of ethnographic ‘writing’ as a form of textualization. So in the instance of articulating field data, we may be creating an archive of texts that interpret cultural practices. If that’s the case, my digital maps make up a cultural archive that documents and interprets the songs and performances of the musicians in my project. More flexible than conventional archive (a published journal article or book), a digital archive can be closer to life because it is akin to the performative practice of building a repertory from which agents draw scripts, meanings, and inspirations. I’m interested to hear what everyone thinks about the experimental possibility and pragmatic processes of the digital mapping of social and cultural practices. I’m also interested in exploring the notion of a digital archiving or mapping as a performative ethnographic “writing” process.

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Mapping the Digital Diaspora of a Dissertation Research Blog

At the onset of my field research in summer 2007, I launched a blog – YellowBuzz.org – with the intention to: 1) archive and organize my field notes in textual and audio-visual form; 2) convey my research purpose and progress to informant musicians and the public; 3) self-position as a “participant” in the scene. Since then, I have made over 160 posts, some directly linked and others tangentially related to my research findings about the activities and media of Asian American indie rock musicians. Over the past one and a half years, my field research blog has received attention from both print and online media. Evidently, this blog has constructed a community consisting of musician- and music-enthusiast-visitors with an interest in Asian American and transpacific music-culture.

This past January, I began tracking the blog traffic by using Google Analytics. This service monitors the physical location of site visitors and their interactions with the pages on the site. The geographical data are analyzed in terms of the number of visits per unit of geographical organization such as city, country/territory, sub continent region, and continent. This information is also visualized in the form of an interactive map on which users can zoom in and out of specific locales and find site visit patterns specific to cities, countries, regions, or continents in the world.

Over the last four months, I have been playing with the May Overlay function projecting geospatial patterns of the site traffic on my blog. These interactive moments have helped me imagine interesting questions such as: What is the geography of an electronic community based on the topic of “Asian American music,” the tagline of my blog? What does the geo-spatial terrain of this “digital diaspora” look like? Are there any striking patterns at each of the organizational level namely, the city, country, sub-continental region, and continent? What spatial boundaries are transcended and created in these visualizations? Or, fancifully, how does the digital geography of my blog reconfigure the more general social geography of “Asian America” online or offline?

Today marks a 4-month anniversary of this thought experiment. I decided to take some screen shots of a few of the visualizations that I’ve found more meaningful in Google Analytics. This analysis uses data from a sample of 3,061 site visits collected from January 1 to April 30, 2009. I will highlight a few interesting findings below:

1) Here’s a map of blog visits in various U.S. cities. It appears that the visitors are concentrated in central Virginia (the home of yours truly), New York City, Boulder, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Other than central Virginia and Boulder, these are areas of high concentration of Asian Americans and indie rock activities. I’m not quite sure how to explain the traffic flow from the Denver area (Boulder and Aurora, ranked third and sixth in this map, respectively) other than to link it to the thriving indie rock scene in Boulder and the physical location of an Asian/Japanese music blogger Shay of Sparkplugged.

blog visits in U.S. cities

2) According to this chart, 76% of the site visits have occurred within the boundaries of the United States. Next on the list are Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia, all English-speaking countries with close historical ties to American music. In the continent of Asia, countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore have among the highest number of visitors to my site. I attribute this pattern to my blog posts about U.S.-based artists who have a large following in these particular countries. Specifically, Hsu-nami (of New Jersey) and Johnny Hi-Fi (SF-based) has strong ties to Taiwan; Kite Operations (New-York) to South Korea; Plus/Minus (New York) to the Philippines and Taiwan.

site visits per country

3) This last chart represents the sub-continental spread of the site visits. North America takes the lead (taking 80% of all visits). Northern Europe and Eastern Asia tie as second, followed by South-Eastern Asian and Western Europe. I’m not quite sure how to explain the high number of visits from Northern Europe other than to link it to the popularity of a Taiwanese metal band Chthonic in North Europe. Chthonic has a strong international presence, having worked with producers in Denmark and the U.S. including Rob Caggiano, the guitarist of Anthrax. In 2007, Chthonic toured with the OzzFest and established close ties with Taiwanese-American-led erhu rock group Hsu-nami.

site visits per sub-continent region

So what does this all mean? YellowBuzz, a blog on “Asian American music”, has constructed a global, transnational readership. Asian America in the online digital environment exists beyond the boundaries of the United States and the Asian continent. These observations of transnational crossings work against the geography of Orientalism: a now-classical postcolonial theory referring to the representational control of the non-west by western-produced discourse. The transnational digital diaspora of YellowBuzz has tampered with the so-called east-west binary.

Now if I were serious about pursuing the research on the transnationality of Internet music journalism, I would look for a correlation between blog content and traffic patterns. This would require systematic, post-to-post observations. I would also consider mapping information regarding Internet access and user demographic with the intention to find links between the blog statistics and general Internet sociality. I would also look for statistical and mapping methods more powerful than Google Analytics.

But – to get back to my dissertation that asks: What paths do musicians and their music take as they establish routes crossing territories constructed by nation-states, corporations, international laws, etc? Unfortunately, these visualizations lack the analytical strength to provide an insight on the musicians’ perspective on the scene. They have offered a perspective on media, in particular in understanding the role of a music blog in constructing “Asian America.”

In the coming months, I will be working on a digital humanities project with Joe Gilbert at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab pursuing questions related to the musicians’ side of the story. I hope to unravel the terrain of musicians’ sociality within the transnational scene of indie rock music by mapping out their tours, social networks on (SNS), and record distribution. Meanwhile, I’m experiencing a bout of euphoria loving the fact that I have reclaimed a free market analytical tool offered by Google for my academic(-y) ethnomusicological thought experiment.

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This post was originally posted on May 4, 2009 on the UVa Scholars’ Lab Blog and my field research blog Yellowbuzz.

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On “Asian American” Digital Identity Politics

Everyday, I receive Google Alerts about any websites, blogs, or news feeds containing the keywords “Asian / American / music” in whatever order and combination that Google search engine finds. Most of the Alerts, unsurprisingly, point to stories related to U.S. politics. Interestingly, around the time of the 2008 Presidential Election, my InBox experienced a minor Google Alert “explosion” with news stories and criticisms listing all the color-based social groups, connecting Obama’s racial politics to the now dominant American ideology of multiculturalism. To my disappointment, none of these news stories included anything substantial information with regards to the Asian American (if there is such a thing) perspective on the Obama and Biden duo.

Is “Asian American” coming to stand in for a keyword, tag (in the speak of blogosphere), or a hip buzzword in our current media environment as digitally informed and constructed? Is there “real content” beyond the textual reference of “Asian” and “American”? If so, how do we assess this content considering the methods of information retrieval, i.e. Google Alerts, and the context of presentation, i.e. hypertextual state of Internet media?

Today, my Google Alerts linked me to a couple of exciting pages of content-worthy materials related to Asian American arts and culture. One of these is a New Yorker article titled “By the Skin of Our Teeth” about “The Shipment”, the new play by Young Jean Lee. The reviewer Hilton Als comments on the Lee’s “irreverent take on racial politics.” Commenting on her 2005 play “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”, featuring the self-violence of an Asian American female character, Lee declares her attitude toward the state of identity politics in the U.S: “For this project, I decided the worst thing I could possibly do was to make an Asian-American identity-politics show, because it can be a very formulaic, very clichéd genre, and very assimilated into white American culture. It’s almost become part of the dominant white power structure to have identity-politics plays about how screwed-over minorities are. It’s such a familiar, soothing pattern. . . . It’s become the status quo.”

When I read the passage, I thought to myself, “now, here’s a kernel of wisdom” worth pursuing. What does she mean by “identity-politics show”? What consists of this ‘cliché genre’ of formulaic and assimilationist plays? A good content analyst would seek information about the playwright and this play. Before I jumped into my usual mode of performing a search on Google or Wikipedia search on Young Jean Lee, I slowed down and pondered about the path of information that allowed me to arrive at this intellectually compressed bit of information.

The New Yorker tags this article with the following keywords: “The Shipment”; Young Jean Lee; Korean-Americans; Douglas Scott Streater; Race Relations; Asian-Americans; “Pullman, WA.” Google search engines must have picked up this article because of the tag “Asian-Americans.” But search engines are not able to make a qualitative distinction between this article [or other substantive articles] from the sources that simply use “Asian American” as a stand-in for cultural multiplicity and diversity. Unfortunately, Asian America still exists, in the digital environment, mostly under a pile of diversity-bound laundry lists at best, or pornography and ads for mail-order brides or other forms of race-related sex industry, at worst.

The risk of being pigeonholed, tokenized, or even sexualized is no news to individuals of Asian descent in the United States. Playwright Young Jean Lee asserts provocative and vehement critiques for the discursive objectification of Asianness in her 2005 play which opens with a monologue by a woman with the name of “Korean-American”:

“Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status. . . . Asian people from Asia are even more brain-damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey. . . . I am so mad about all of the racist things against me in this country, which is America. Like the fact that the reason why so many white men date Asian women is that they can get better-looking Asian women than they can get white women because we . . . have lower self-esteem. It’s like going with an inferior brand so that you can afford more luxury features.”

This is intellectually dense, emotionally heavy stuff. But the fact that it’s available in a point-and-click fashion is astounding. Google Alerts prevent information from fossilization. Without Google Alerts, I would find this article somewhere down the line when I do archival search, plowing through databases for historical artifacts. The newness and immediacy of this information would be lost. Also, it would take many more steps to link this article to other articles related to the subject of “Asian / American / music” published today.

The other noteworthy piece Google Alerts linked me to is an interview of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer by RVAjazz blog entitled “Intellect Meets Creativity.” Iyer speaks reflexively about his role as an Indian American musician in the Afro-centric tradition of jazz music: “I’m just fortunate to be able to interact with the music from my perspective, and to reconsider what resonances there might be with my own experience, or with anyone’s. The point is to honor that legacy and not commodify it, but also to learn from it. I think that America was invited to reconsider a lot of this in light of the ascent and success of Obama. Those are symptoms of a larger development in our culture – it’s about who we are and where we are and what time it is!”

The juxtaposition between the New Yorker article on Young Jean Lee’s play and Vijay Iyer’s interview is intellectually curious. Iyer’s perspective on race in America is less dystopic than Lee’s. In fact, his alliance with African American culture and struggle speaks to a larger discourse about race in terms of minoritarian politics, quite contrary to the uncritical multiculturalist orientation. Iyer’s interview could tap into the historical and contemporary moments of Afro-Asian connections formed in anti-racist solidarity.

My research aims to track these moments deliberately and shamelessly, making links and disconnects among them as they occur in real time. Information as such, categorized and recategorized based on similar or dissimilar terms, is generated and circulated at high volume daily on the Internet. Digital technologies allow discourse to flow in disparate, rhizomatic directions. The hypertextual state of Internet media is overwhelming to sort through, but this quality allows information to seep into unexpected cracks and generate surprising juxtapositions. Similar to keywords and tags, identity categories, also reproduce themselves in a semi-irrational, hypertextual fashion in our time. These contradictory patterns as discovered in the digital environment may best represent the schizophrenic style of identity proliferation that would mark our post-identity-politics (or post-Race) age.

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This post was originally posted on February 4, 2009 on Yellowbuzz and the UVa Scholars’ Lab blog.