Conference Grants: Xiaowei Wang on Pearl Parties at SLSA

04 Feb, 2020

Conference Grants: Xiaowei Wang on Pearl Parties at SLSA

Xiaowei Wang received a Fall 2019 BCNM Conference Grant to help cover her costs attending the 2019 annual meeting of the the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts​ in Irvine, CA. Wang presented "Let's Have a Pearl Party: Style and Livestream in the Making of Subculture." Read more about her experience in her own words below.

The conference I attended was the Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSA) in UC Irvine on November 6-9 2019. SLSA is an interdisciplinary conference, so sessions range from looking at the semiotics of biotechnology, to affect and game studies, as well as the overlap between AI and social justice. The keynote speaker is exemplary of this interdisciplinarity — this year it was Laura Kurgan, who founded the Spatial Information Data Lab at Columbia University, and who's lab critically examines a range of issues from social justice to real estate and human rights using geographic data.

The paper I presented, "Let's Have a Pearl Party" was in the session, "Post Capitalism Ball", chaired by Martabel Wasserman of Stanford University. The panel description is below:

The chant from the recent wave of teacher strikes across the United States lends itself to imaging what a ball, in the queer sense of the word, might look like after capitalism. What can we craft from the debris and damage of our current economic system and what can queer cultures afford us in this process of imagining new worlds? How can we rework ideas of the nature/culture binary to sustain not only life but life as a queer affect? How does death and dying factor into this process of reimagining “the art of living on a damaged planet” as proposed by anthropologist Anna Tsing? Our presentations will explore common (and uncommon ground) between our interdisciplinary practices. Non-humans- including mugwort, oysters, rocking horses and kelp couture - become allies in thinking about how resistance to historical and contemporary disasters have posited possibilities for a post-capitalist future. The panel will not only speculate on what queer aesthetics have to offer a post-capitalist imaginary, but also look at ways in which queering the very idea of a singular apocalypse is necessary for understanding the end of days as an ongoing event felt differently across identities, class, geographic locations and species.

My paper examined affect and the phenomenon of pearl parties on Facebook Live to examine how artifice and style form a subculture that is against the dominant neoliberal ideology of hard work. Pearl Parties are a form of multilevel marketing, and I looked at how this type of informal work has created its own subculture enshrined in refusal, how pearl party culture articulates the jubilant failures of neoliberalism and the difficult contours of representing the actually existing working class. It is through this subculture that we might understand one path for failure and refusal as a way to counter and put an end to work as we know it, and I examine this notion of failure and refusal through queer theorist Lee Edelman's work.

The other sessions were enormously thought provoking. Artist, scholar and theorist Katherine Behar chaired a three part series, called "Artificial Ignorance". The first one was on adversarial networks and looked at a myriad of issues including the role of the artist in AI, microtask workers in content moderation, as well as the concept of "failure to enroll". The other papers, later on in the series looked at AI and drone warfare, human-machine sex, and the ontology of certain machine learning practices. Overall, the three part series combined the technical and philosophical, in a highly interdisciplinary way. Other sessions, like Speculative Evolution and Imaginary Life Forms looked at "perverse" ways of being in the world, through the lens of Frankenstein, or the historical context of being a vegetarian.

I took a lot away from the conference, but the biggest learning moment was seeing how interdisciplinary research is done. There were a lot of scholars who were in specific fields like History, English, Anthropology, etc, but everyone's vocabulary and methodology was very different. For some disciplines, the speculative was highly encouraged as a way of thinking through scholarship, and it was less focused on critical theorizing, instead emphasizing making. The methodologies also ranged - for anthropologists, the ways of knowing were steeped in fieldwork, very different than History. It was interesting to see how disagreements over people's paper conclusions could come just from a disciplinary boundary. There were also a set of thinkers who could bridge those different disciplines, which was also good to see, definitely people like Donna Haraway, Wendy Chun, and Sylvia Wynter. I think what's in common with the thinkers and writers there is a strong emphasis on the philosophical and theoretical, that different disciplines can use as a tool.