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04 Apr 2024
Carrie Karsgaard

Political Aesthetics of Instagram’s Climate Public Pedagogy

In this blogpost, which is based on the book Instagram as Public Pedagogy, Carrie Karsgaard explores the potential of Instagram for public pedagogy about climate change.

Instagram’s Climate Public Pedagogy

While provision of climate change education lags behind climate realities or is curtailed where petro-power infuses education from pedagogy to policy, young people are turning to social media to learn about climate change. A recent EdWeek Research Center poll, for instance, found that 56% of US youth learn “some” or “a lot” about climate change from social media.

Youth learning through social media during the global youth climate strikes has garnered much attention by education researchers. However, less attention has been paid to climate learning in relation to anti-pipeline movements. Land-based movements like resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) in Canada see significant social media use by publics resisting fossil fuel development, even as they also speak out against colonial land use and assert Indigenous sovereignty over the land. Through visuals depicting ranging climate-related issues – from political cartoons to activist imagery, apocalyptic climate impacts to infographics about fossil fuels – Instagram imagery holds educational potential to “highlight affect, political views, reactions, key information, and scenes of importance” (Highfield & Leaver, 2016, p. 48) on climate.

Understanding Instagram’s visual possibilities as a form of public pedagogy – a concept that highlights educational processes that function in the cultural realm – educators concerned with climate education might wonder: what are the visual aspects of climate-oriented public pedagogy on a platform like Instagram, and how do they “work” – or not?

The Visual Context for Instagram’s Public Pedagogy

Visual creative possibilities are available for climate public pedagogies on Instagram that can deepen understanding of the political, socio-cultural, and scientific aspects of climate change, inspire climate action, and visualize alternative climate futures. At the same time, visuality on Instagram is structured according to existing visual regimes, such as colonial visuality and Instagram’s visuality.

Colonial Visuality

Recognized by the IPCC for contributing to climate injustice, colonialism also infuses visual regimes that support fossil fuel-powered industrial development. For instance, longstanding colonial visual regimes depict land as a backdrop for human agency and racialize some human bodies – such as Indigenous peoples – in ways that justify their dispossession. In other words, “colonial approaches to vision and visuality shape contemporary conversations about land, resources, institutions and environmental imaginaries” (Spiegel et al., 2020, p. 3; referring to Braun, 2002), including within many dominant education systems.

Instagram Visuality

Oriented around data gathering within colonial-capitalist system, social media platforms like Instagram favor spectacular visuals that drive up user engagement, such as sharing and likes (Duarte & Vigil-Hayes, 2017). Visuality on Instagram is not neutral but instead reflects “platformed racism” (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017) where biases baked into algorithms determine and monitor content to the detriment of marginalized peoples.

While these visual regimes intersect and reinforce one another, Instagram’s public pedagogy also holds potential to upset these regimes.

Political Aesthetics

Colonial visuality and Instagram’s visuality can both be understood according to what Rancière (2009, 2013) terms the “distribution of the sensible.” The dominant representational regimes determine what can be seen and understood – and, ultimately, what is worthwhile. According to Rancière, politics “happens” when the dominant regime (the “distribution of the sensible”) is disrupted through aesthetic interruptions that make visible what was previously invisible, upsetting familiar classifications and roles. This is where the pedagogical potential of Instagram emerges – in offering powerful alternatives to those regimes that are contributing to intensifying climate crisis. Of course, such interruptions are always partial, as the policing effects of dominant regimes persist in disciplining aesthetic expression back towards the norm.

Political Aesthetics of Instagram’s Climate Public Pedagogy

Images posted about the Trans Mountain pipeline work both within and against colonial representational regimes – as well as both within and against the visual vernaculars of Instagram – in a complex visual public pedagogy.

Activist Uptake of Visual Regimes

Climate change is addressed through imagery that highlights the disastrous impacts of the fossil fuel industry, such as depictions of oil spills or apocalyptic imagery of forest fires. Providing empirical visual evidence of environmental and climate disaster, these images clearly seek to affectively impact viewers and motivate them to action. Other images use humor to address policy decisions, for instance by using memes to critique Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s disregard of his own government’s climate policies in supporting pipeline development. Taking up Instagram’s celebrity-orientation, other images depict climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Anishinaabe Water Protector, Autumn Peltier, either live at climate protests or on doctored images overlaid with statements such as: “How dare you! We can’t drink oil or eat money.” Still others leverage Instagram’s ability to share moments live and on location, drawing viewers into moments of active resistance at youth climate strikes or pipeline blockades.

Across these examples, we can see among the great diversity of visual expressions the inherent flexibility of the platform, including those that contest colonial visuality by highlighting the agency of Indigenous activists like Autumn Peltier. At the same time, imagery such as memes, celebrity posts, and on-location photographs are all unsurprising within Instagram’s visual regimes, exhibiting the influence of platform cultures, affordances, and economies within a climate public pedagogy that is bound up with Instagram surveillance and big data capitalism.

Aesthetic Climate Public Pedagogy

Working against the “distribution of the sensible,” some anti-pipeline posts appropriate, remix, and subvert Instagram’s visual vernaculars to challenge or refuse colonial representational regimes. For example, posts hashtagged #TinyHouseWarriors, for a group of Indigenous land defenders who have blockaded the pipeline, take up typical Instagram formats such as selfies and protest imagery but in ways that highlight Indigenous women’s decolonial leadership. Hashtagging themselves as #warriors, the Tiny House Warriors refuse colonial representations of Indigenous women and appropriate Instagram’s visuality for self-representation, even as they contest pipeline development.

Imagery emerging from anti-pipeline activism thus reveal a climate public pedagogy capable of decolonial “freedom to imagine and create an elsewhere in the here; a present future beyond the imaginative and territorial bounds of colonialism. It is a performance of other worlds, an embodied practice of flight” (Martineau & Ritskes, 2014, p. 4). With a smartphone in hand, Instagram users can perform, depict, share, and network climate alternatives, educating through political aesthetics that contest the status quo.

Conclusion

Rancière helps us see the political power of visual climate expressions on Instagram as they refuse colonial representational regimes that define bodies and the land, and contest the cultures and economies driving Instagram’s visuality. Connecting public pedagogy and formal education, there is potential for climate change education to support learners to practice political aesthetics through creative expression, while also developing the visual and cultural literacy to analyze existing climate representations in the online (and offline) spaces where they are already learning about climate change.

 

References

Rancière, J. (2009). Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Polity.

Rancière, J. (2013). The Politics of Aesthetics. Bloomsbury Publishing.

 

About the Author:

Carrie Karsgaard is Assistant Professor at Cape Breton University in Canada.

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