It has been fifteen months since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic and the first lockdowns went into effect, dramatically changing the social landscape for millions of individuals worldwide. Overnight, it seemed, Zoom became the default platform for video conferencing, rapidly morphing from brand name to eponymous generic—a verb and a place and mode of being all at once. This nearly ubiquitous transition to remote work and remote play was both unprecedented and entirely anticipated. While teleworking, digital commerce, online learning, and social networking were common fare by 2020, in March of that year telepresence shifted from option to mandate, and Zooming became a daily practice for tens of millions of individuals worldwide. In an era of COVID-19, our relationships and experiences are deeply intertwined with our ability to “Zoom”. This shift resulted in new forms of artistic practice, new modes of pedagogy, and new ways of social organising, but it has also created new forms (and exacerbated existing forms) of exploitation, inequity, social isolation, and precarity.
For millions, of course, lockdowns and restrictions had a profound impact that could not be mitigated by the mediated presence offered by way of Zoom and other video conferencing platforms. For those of us fortunate enough to maintain a paycheck and engage in work remotely, Zoom in part highlighted the degree to which a network logic already governed our work and our labour within a neoliberal economy long before the first lockdowns began. In the introduction to The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard identifies a “logic of maximum performance” that regulates the contemporary moment: a cybernetic framework for understanding what it means to communicate—one that ultimately frames all political, social, and personal interactions within matrices of power laid out in terms of performativity and optimisation (xxiv.) Performativity serves as a foundation for not only how a system operates, but for how all other elements within that system express themselves. Lyotard writes, “even when its rules are in the process of changing and innovations are occurring, even when its dysfunctions (such as strikes, crises, unemployment, or political revolutions) inspire hope and lead to a belief in an alternative, even then what is actually taking place is only an internal readjustment, and its results can be no more than an increase in the system’s ‘viability’” (11-12). One may well add to this list of dysfunctions global pandemics. Zoom, in effect, offered universities, corporations, mass media outlets, and other organisations a platform to “innovate” within an ongoing network logic of performativity: to maintain business as usual in a moment in which nothing was usual, normal, or functional.
Zoom foregrounds performativity in other senses as well, to the extent that it provides a space and context for social performance. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman explores how social actors move through their social environments, managing their identities in response to the space in which they find themselves and the audience (who are also social actors) within those spaces. For Goffman, the social environment provides the primary context for how and why social actors behave the way that they do. Goffman further denotes different spaces where our performances may shift: from public settings to smaller audiences, to private spaces where we can inhabit ourselves without any performance demands. The advent of social media, however, has added new layers to how we understand performance, audience, and public and private social spaces. Indeed, Goffman’s assertion that we are constantly managing our impressions feels particularly accurate when considering the added pressures of managing our identities in multiple social spaces, both face to face and online. Thus, when the world shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, and all forms of social interactions shifted to digital spaces, the performative demands of working from home became all the more complex in the sharp merging of private and public spaces. Thus, discussions and debates arose regarding proper “Zoom etiquette”, for different settings, and what constituted work-appropriate attire when working from home (a debate that, unsurprisingly, became particularly gendered in nature). Privacy management was a near constant narrative as we began asking, who can be in our spaces? How much of our homes are we required to put on display to other classmates, co-workers, and even our friends? In many ways, the hyper-dependence on Zoom interactions forced an entry into the spaces that we so often kept private, leaving our social performances permanently on display.
Prior to COVID-19, the networks of everyday life had already produced rather porous boundaries between public and private life, but for the most part, individuals managed to maintain some sort of partition between domestic, intimate spaces, and their public performances of their professional and civic selves. It was an exception in The Before Times, for example, for a college professor to be interrupted in the midst of his BBC News interview by his children wandering into the room; the suspended possibility of the private erupting in the midst of a public social space (or vice versa) haunts all of our network interactions, yet the exceptionality of these moments speaks to the degree to which we sustained an illusion of two distinct stages for performance in a pre-pandemic era. Now, what was once the exception has become the rule. As millions of individuals found themselves Zooming from home while engaging co-workers, clients, patients, and students in professional interactions, the interpenetration of the public and private became a matter of daily fare. And yes, while early on in the pandemic several newsworthy (or at least meme-worthy) stories circulated widely on mass media and social media alike, serving as teleconferencing cautionary tales—usually involving sex, drugs, or bowel movements—moments of transgressive privacy very much became the norm: we found ourselves, in the midst of the workday, peering into backgrounds of bedrooms and kitchens, examining decorations and personal effects, and sharing in the comings and goings of pets and other family members entering and leaving the frame. Some users opted for background images or made use of blurring effects to “hide the mess” of their daily lives. Others, however, seemed to embrace the blur itself, implicitly or explicitly accepting the everydayness of this new liminality between public and private life.
And while we acknowledge the transgressive nature of the incursions of the domestic and the intimate into workplace activities, it is worth noting as well that this incursion likewise takes place in the opposite direction, as spaces once designated as private became de facto workplace settings, and fell under the purview of a whole range of workplace policies that dictated appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Not least of these intrusions are the literal and ideological apparatuses of surveillance that Zoom and other video conferencing platforms set into motion.
In the original conception of the Panopticon, the observer could see the observed, but those being observed could not see their observers. This was meant to instill a sense of constant surveillance, whether the observer was there or not. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault considered those observed through the Panopticon as objects to be observed, with no power to turn the gaze back towards the structures of power that infiltrated their existence with such invasive intent. With Zoom, however, as much as private spaces have been infiltrated by work, school, and even family and friends, those leading classes or meetings may also feel a penetrative gaze by those who observe their professional performances, as many online participants have pushed back against these intrusions with cameras and audio turned off, leaving the performer with an audience of black screens and no indication of real observers behind them or not. In these unstable digital spaces, we vacillate between observed and observer, with the lines between private and public, visible and invisible, utterly blurred. Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that the panoptic power of the platform itself is hardly optic and remains one degree removed from its users, at the level of data extraction, collection, and exchange. In an already data-dependent era, more privacy and personal data has become available than ever before through online monitoring and the constant use of Zoom in work and social interactions. Such incursions of informatic biopower require further consideration within an emerging discussion of digital capital.
There has also been the opportunity for these transformative, digital spaces to be used for an invited gaze into artistic and imaginative spaces. The global pandemic hit many industries hard, but in particular, artists and performers, as well as their performance venues, saw a massive loss of space, audiences, and income. Many artists developed performance spaces through online video conferencing in order to maintain their practice and their connection to their audiences, while others developed new curriculums and worked to find accessible ways for community members to participate in online art programming. Thus, though performers may still be faced with black squares as their audience, the invited gaze allows for artistic performances to continue, whether as digital shorts, live streamed music sets, or isolated cast members performing many roles with a reduced cast list. Though the issue of access to the technology and bandwidth needed to partake in these performances and programming is still front of mind, the presentation of artistic performances through Zoom has allowed in many other ways for a larger audience reach, from those who may not live near a performance centre, to others who may not be able to access physical spaces comfortably or safely.
The ideology of ongoing productivity and expanded, remote access baked into video conferencing platforms like Zoom is perhaps most apparent in the assumptions of access that accompanied the widespread use of these platforms, particularly in the context of public institutions such as schools. In the United States, free market libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute have pointed to the end of “Net Neutrality” as a boon for infrastructure investment that led to greater broadband access nationwide (compared to a more heavily regulated industry in Europe). Yet even policy think tanks such as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation—with its mission to “formulate, evaluate, and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress”—acknowledged that although the U.S. infrastructure supported the massive increase in bandwidth demands as schools and businesses went online, gaps in rural access and affordability barriers for low income users mean that more needs to be done to bring about “a more just and effective broadband network for all Americans”. But calls for greater access are, in effect, supporting this same ideological framework in which greater access presumably equates with greater equity. What the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, we would argue, is the degree to which those most in need of services and support experience the greatest degree of digital precarity, a point that Jenny Kennedy, Indigo Holcombe-James, and Kate Mannell foreground in their piece “Access Denied: How Barriers to Participate on Zoom Impact on Research Opportunity”. As they note, access to data and devices provide a basic threshold for participation, but the ability to deploy these tools and orient oneself toward these sorts of engagements suggests a level of fluency beyond what many high-risk/high-need populations may already possess. Access reveals a disposition toward global networks, and as such signals one’s degree of social capital within a network society—a “state nobility” for the digital age (Bourdieu.)
While Zoom became the default platform for a wide range of official and institutional practices, from corporate meetings to college class sessions, we have seen over the past year unanticipated engagements with the platform as well. Zoombombing offers one form of evil media practice that disrupts the dominant performativity logic of Zoom and undermines the assumptions of rational exchange that still drive much of how we understand “effective” communication (Fuller and Goffey). While we may be tempted to dismiss Zoombombing and other forms of “shitposting” as “mere” trollish distractions, doing so does not address the political agency of strategic actions on these platforms that refuse to abide by “an intersubjective recognition that is based on a consensus about values or on mutual understanding” (Habermas 12). Kawsar Ali takes up these tactical uses in “Zoom-ing in on White Supremacy: Zoom-Bombing Anti-Racism Efforts” and explores how alt-right and white supremacist groups have exploited these strategies not only as a means of disruption but as a form of violence against participants.
A cluster of articles in this issue take up the question of creative practice and how video conferencing technologies can be adapted to performative uses that were perhaps not intended or foreseen by the platform’s creators. xtine burrough and Sabrina Starnaman offer up one such project in “Epic Hand Washing: Synchronous Participation and Lost Narratives”, which paired live performances of handwashing in domestic spaces with readings from literary texts that commented upon earlier pandemics and plagues. While Zoom presents itself as a tool to keep a neoliberal economy flowing, we see modes of use such as burrough’s and Starnaman’s performative piece that are intentionally playful, at the same time that they attempt to address the lived experiences of lockdown, confinement, and hygienic hypervigilance.
Claire Parnell, Andrea Anne Trinidad, and Jodi McAlister explore another form of playful performance through their examination of the #RomanceClass community in the Philippines, and how they adapted their biannual reading and performance events of their community-produced English-language romance fiction. While we may still use comparative terms such as “face-to-face” and “virtual” to distinguish between digitally-mediated and (relatively) unmediated interactions, Parnell et al.’s work highlights the degree to which these technologies of mediation were already a part of this community’s attempt to support and sustain itself. Zoom, then, became the vehicle to produce and share community-oriented kilig, a Filipino term for embodied, romantic affective response.
Shaun Wilson’s “Creative Practice through Teleconferencing in the Era of COVID-19” provides another direct reflection on the contemporary moment and the framing aesthetics of Zoom. Through an examination of three works of art produced for screen during the COVID-19 pandemic, including his own project “Fading Light”, Wilson examines how video conferencing platforms create “oscillating” frames that speak to and comment on each other at the same time that they remain discrete and untouched.
We have opened and closed this issue with bookends of sorts, bringing to the fore a range of theoretical considerations alongside personal reflections. In our feature article, “Room without Room: Affect and Abjection in the Circuit of Self-Regard”, Ricky Crano examines the degree to which the aesthetics of Zoom, from its glitches to its default self-view, create modes of interaction that drain affect from discourse, leaving its users with an impoverished sense of co-presence. His focus is explicitly on the normative uses of the platform, not the many artistic and experimental misappropriations that the platform likewise offers. He concludes, “it is left to artists and other experimenters to expose and undermine the workings of power in the standard corporate, neoliberal modes of engagement”, which several of the following essays in this issue then take up.
And we close with “Embracing Liminality and ‘Staying with the Trouble’ on (and off) Screen”, in which Tania Lewis, Annette Markham, and Indigo Holcombe-James explore two autoethnographic studies, Massive and Microscopic Sensemaking and The Shut-In Worker, to discuss the liminality of our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, on and off—and in between—Zoom screens. Rather than suggesting a “return to normal” as mask mandates, social distancing, and lockdown restrictions ease, they attempt to “challenge the assumption that stability and certainty is what we now need as a global community … . How can we use the discomfort of liminality to imagine global futures that have radically transformative possibilities?” This final piece in the collection we take to heart, as we consider how we, too, can stay in the trouble, and consider transformative futures.
Each of these pieces offers a thoughtful contribution to a burgeoning discussion on what Zooming means to us as academics, teachers, researchers, and community members. Though investigations into the social effects of digital spaces are not new, this moment in time requires careful and critical investigation through the lens of a global pandemic as it intersects with a world that has never been more digital in its presence and social interactions. The articles in this volume bring us to a starting point, but there is much more to cover: issues of disability and accessibility, gender and physical representations, the political economy of digital accessibility, the transformation of learning styles and experiences through a year of online learning, and still more areas of investigation to come. It is our hope that this volume provides a blueprint of sorts for other critical engagements and explorations of how our lives and our digital landscapes have been impacted by COVID-19, regardless of the instability of our connections.
We would like to thank all of the contributors and peer reviewers who made this fascinating issue possible, with a special thanks to the Cultural Studies Association New Media and Digital Cultures Working Group, where these conversations started … on Zoom, of course.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The State Nobility. Stanford UP, 1998.
Brake, Doug. “Lessons from the Pandemic: Broadband Policy after COVID-19.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, 13 July 2020. <http://itif.org/publications/2020/07/13/lessons-pandemic-broadband-policy-after-covid-19>.
“Children Interrupt BBC News Interview – BBC News.” BBC News, 10 Mar. 2017. <http://youtu.be/Mh4f9AYRCZY>.
Firey, Thomas A. “Telecommuting to Avoid COVID-19? Thank the End of ‘Net Neutrality.’” The Cato Institute, 16 Apr. 2020. <http://www.cato.org/blog/telecommuting-avoid-covid-19-thank-end-net-neutrality>.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Penguin, 2020.
Fuller, Matthew, and Andrew Goffey. Evil Media. MIT P, 2012.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor, 2008.
Habermas, Jürgen. On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction. Polity, 2001.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. U of Minnesota P, 1984.
“WHO Director-General's Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020.” World Health Organization, 11 Mar. 2020. <http://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020>.
“Zoom Etiquette: Tips for Better Video Conferences.” Emily Post. <http://emilypost.com/advice/zoom-etiquette-tips-for-better-video-conferences>.