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“Sorry Business”: Bronwyn Carlson Presents in Flagstaff on Social Media Use and Mourning in Australian Aboriginal Communities

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While researching Native American veterans’ issues at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, I had the pleasure of seeing a presentation by Dr. Bronwyn Carlson (University of Wollongong, Australia) on 14 October. Dr. Carlson, who visited NAU to discuss collaborations between her institution and the Applied Indigenous Studies Program at NAU, specializes in the study of social media use among Australian Aboriginal communities.

I am fascinated by Carlson’s work because it brings together a number of aspects I have been grappling with for my milblog project. I read the use of social media by primarily non-Indigenous populations (i.e., US soldiers and civilian representatives of the home front) as a cultural practice that conducts cultural work by ceremonially negotiating war experience and, thus, constituting community. My work draws from a discussion of how Indigenous communities in the US reintegrate returning veterans and of the role community support plays in this integration process.

Media-studies approaches to social and new media in the early 2000s tended to be very defensive in stating that virtual communities, such as blog audiences or Facebook groups, could constitute community through relationship-maintaining interaction that was not bound to embodiment and place. Much of these debates seemed to defend against allegations that online communities could not be communities, exactly because they were not spatial and embodied, and often did not enable synchronous conversation (such as the sequence of blog post and readers’ comments).

While my own work draws from observations about Native American war-related ceremonies to argue that non-Native milblogs, indeed, constitute community because they perform ceremonial acts of narrating war experience and social support through audience response (an indirect link between Indigenous communalism and social media), Bronwyn Carlson’s research focuses on how Australian Aboriginals directly operationalize social media for community-related cultural practices.

One aspect of this would be the question of forging identity – I have been asked repeatedly in how far online space as a playground for assuming another identity might be a problem for my work on milblogs, in how far some blogs might be fakes assuming a “hero” identity In the case of veterans and soldiers, I am sure that any wannabe milbloggers would be called out very quickly because the milblogosphere so so well-connected and because the topics are so specific that faking expertise would be too difficult to succeed. However, the fact that some popular (general) blogs turned out to be based on fictitious identities, and the widespread utilization of anonymity in social media raised the question of authenticity among many colleagues to whom I presented my work. ‘Playing with identity’ seems to be primarily a problem of the “Western” world, though, if we consider Dr. Carlson’s work. Australian Aboriginals tend to be more interested in representing, emphasizing, and strengthening their cultural identity through their representation of “self” in social media, rather than engage in ethnic, social, or gender drag.

Carlson’s presentation and articles illustrate that Australian Aboriginals not only use social media at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians, but that their use of the media opportunities goes beyond typical non-Indigenous uses, as well. It incorporates culturally-specific elements that serve to (re-)instate cultural identity: Because many communities have been torn apart due to forced adoptions, residential schools, or employment requirements, many Australian Aboriginal communities face challenges in continuing particular practices, and social media offer opportunities to remedy this predicament.

This is especially important regarding matters of death and mourning, which are called “Sorry Business” among Aboriginal communities. Sorry Business entails social obligations, based on reciprocity and social support, participating in ceremonies, and representing one’s extended family. Social media allows people to inform distant relatives about the death of particular community members through online obituaries, to organize transport to remote funeral ceremonies, to extend gestures of support and condolences online if attendance at a funeral is impossible, and to dedicate online sites as memorials to deceased persons, to which users can contribute by posting stories, images, or messages. I have seen similar practices and functions of bridging the spatial divide in milblog-representations of mourning, and am fascinated by the similar utilization of technology to continue cultural communal traditions between them and the expressions of Aboriginal Sorry Business.

I found especially remarkable that Dr. Carlson presented this cultural phenomenon from various angles, discussing culturally-specific problems such as the impact of staggering numbers of suicides among Australian Aboriginal youth on Sorry Business in the social media, and internal debates on cultural taboos (such as visual representations and mentioning the names of deceased persons online). These perspectives complicate our understanding of the matter, yet they illustrate intriguingly how a culture is not only confronted and challenged by technological and social change, but also, how community members take up the challenge and seek to incorporate these new technologies into its cultural and social fabric. Representations of internal debates and conflicts over cultural taboos versus opportunities to conduct ceremonies and commemorate lost community members, after all, indicate that this culture is alive and kicking.

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