Blog Post

Blog Diss: Statement of Research Plan (3/4)

Part one is here, and part two here.

SITUATION WITHIN FIELDS

This project will be situated in four primary fields: affect theory, materialist theory, new media/digital humanities scholarship, and oppositional media studies (that is, feminist, critical race, queer, and disability studies-focused approaches to media).

While there have been critical moments of intersection between some of these fields, particularly between affect-based and materialist analysis and the fields of new media/digital humanities work and oppositional media studies, the collection of all four in the form of singular project brings together what seems to be a disparate set of voices and commitments. Yet, this approach seems a necessary way in which to grapple with the increasingly complex nature of digital media production and consumption. By combining insights from these fields, I hope to grapple with the ways in which new media is indeed new, producing specific communities, forms and modes of identification related to labour, at the same time as many of those practices and subjects have also inherited and are reproducing online modes of production and circulation which long precede the digital context. So while particular forms and genres of affective online production engender unique sites of possibility, I also contend that they exist within and respond to a broader set of structural conditions, such that many online tensions and debates cannot be adequately grasped without viewing them as extensions of larger struggles.

The alignment of affect theory with the other three fields listed is particularly important because while digital media has been a site of academic and popular focus for several decades now, attention has only recently turned (Tokumitsu, Berens) to the important ways in which affective conditions create particular forms of digital labour and labourers.  I therefore intend to focus heavily on recent interventions into affect studies, particularly the work of Sara Ahmed, Sianne Ngai (2004), and Lauren Berlant (2011). All have complicated the valorization of positive affects, noting how rejections of the negative are often used as tools for the erasure of marginalized subjectivities and experiences. Yet Berlant and critical race scholar bell hooks (2001) have also speculated about the potential power of a radical, disruptive form of love, which could function to destabilize various modes of normativity. Rather than a rejection of affect, then, all are invested in a reorientation toward the radical potentiality of affective relationality. These insights offer an important means by which the conditions currently creating and regulating digital labour might be both better understood and more powerfully contested.

Melissa Gregg, whose work takes up both questions of affect and of digital labour in particular, will importantly bridge the fields of affect studies and new media/digital humanties. Her recent monograph, Work’s Intimacy (2013) in particular provides a nuanced reading of digital labour as a site of intensely affective pleasures which are also shaped (though not entirely overdetermined) by capitalist conditions of production and its related modes of gendered, sexual and racial normativities. The Internet as Playground and Factory, a collection arising from a 2009 conference, similarly indicates how digital labour functions by intertwining the material, affective conditions of work and leisure (or ‘playbour’). I will also turn to the work of DH/new media scholars including Alan Liu (2004), Tara McPherson (2012), and Lisa Nakamura (2012). Each attends, though in distinct ways, to how racial, sexual, and gendered forms of precarity are at times both literally and figuratively built into digital technologies, thereby shaping the types of labour that are produced by and through users.

The assemblage of approaches I have termed oppositional media studies provides a similar emphasis on the digital management of difference. I differentiate between this field and new media/digital humanities scholarship, however, partially because while the work I characterize as new media/DH primarily emphasizes practices and processes of computing and digital production, what I am calling oppositional media studies extends beyond specifically digital work and emphasizes the consumption and circulation of media rather than its production. Included in this field, then, will be Rhiannon Bury’s (2005) study on female fandom, multiple articles from journals such as Feminist Media Studies and Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, as well as hashtags such as #blacktwitter. While it is by no means my intention to focus exclusively, or even primarily, on consumption or reception practices, the fact that many of the communities I am studying (such as fans and intellectual property pirates) are also necessarily consumers of digital and non-digital content suggests the need to consider how subcultural labour and labourers in particular are conceptualized by and through specific practices of consumption.

Finally, I will engage with the field(s) of materialism and its complex relationship to digital production. In order to attempt to both historicize digital production and its relationship to other forms of labour while also emphasizing the role of affective relationality and various systemic inequalities, I will likely be using a selection of theorists whose work is at times openly in tension. While foregrounding thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Fredric Jameson, for example, whose respective studies on capital’s increasing control over ‘free time’ (1991) and the alignment of various cultural forms with specific phases of capitalism (1991, 1998), I will rely equally heavily on feminist interventions into these modes of materialist thought. Scholarship and activism such as those of Silvia Federici (2004), Rosemary Hennessy (1997) and Kathi Weeks (2011) are not mere supplements to more traditional understandings of labour and materialism in their gestures toward such the types of erasures prevalent in such analysis. Rather, their work provokes critical and necessary questions about how labour’s various forms (including the digital) are both predicated upon and capable of powerful resistance toward those erasures.

 

Part four.

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3 comments

This section is probably the most long and unwieldly, especially because some of the samples I read managed the fields stuff in a paragraph or two. I think of all the genres implied by the particular suggested sections, I'm least familiar and comfortable with how to quickly and efficiently manage to both summarize a field and explain how my work is situated within it. So I definitely would love some feedback here!

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I want to leave a bit of the commentary here to Nat, since I think she's got a better read on what the department's expectations are regarding fields and how they are expressed in the proposals.  So, please read this not as practical advice but conceptual advice :-)

I agree that these four fields will all influence your work, and in different places and to different extents.  That said, they can't all be "primary" or you risk being overly ambitious.  They are not equally important to your argument, and you need a way to manage them in such a way that your priorities shape the project.  I think this is why you’ve found it difficult to put these thinkers into dialogue with your work – each field is overwhelming in its scope, and trying to juggle all four is just too much.

Again, I want to stress that this isn’t strategic advice about the proposal and how it will be read by the grad committee, but rather a conceptual reading of where you need to place yourself intellectually in order to progress through the project.  You need to write from a position of primary affiliation and secondary or tertiary utility. I believe that your real allegiance is with affect theory (correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my read…) and the way that plays out digitally.  It’s okay to let that be your focus.  Now, of course you need materialism to position yourself that way, but it’s fine to say that and not also say that this is a materialist project. Likewise, although much of DH theorizing involves discussions of building and thing theory, the fact is that this project is emphatically not making something, but rather reading and analyzing it.  This is all yack, no hack, and that is 100% fine.

Your summary of the utility of the four fields here is quite strong, and it is clear how each of them can be useful to your work to some extent.  Defining that extent is the trick.  It’s hard to tell Lauren Berlant that she’s only useful to a point, but that’s your job now ;-) 

Again, I think this will be come clearer with a more robust expression of your own argument, a more unapologetic use of verbs, and a more clear sense that your dissertation is the thing at the center of this endeavor. Put it out there.

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I don't think this document requires that you offer a firm account of the fields in which you will work.  But doing so is not necessarily out of bounds, either.  I think you're free to work with the genre and to open it up in new ways.  At the risk of repeating what I said in my global comment, however, I think you might need to tone down the certainty with which you describe these fields.  This section opens with a paragraph that uses the word "grapple" twice.  And yet the paragraphs that follow don't really account for much grappling.  I think you could improve this section by indicating which questions arise from these fields that you will need to attend to in your project.  It would also be helpful here to include an account of the historical conditions that give rise to this project and to the conceptual terms.  I'm thinking, for instance, of the scholarship on women's reading communities by people like Janice Radway and others.  Yes, that scholarship is about romance novels and not digital stuff.  But some of the arguments are the same.  I guess I'd like to see you include a question or two in each fields representation.  Mo is right to say that your summary of fields is strong.  It's almost too strong here.  Open it up so that you show you've got something to learn from the field by doing more reading and thinking about what we assume to be its obvious insights.  What's not so obvious?  Where are the sites of contradiction or paradox that will help you to dive deeper into the project?  I think Mo's advice above is good: you need to position yourself intellectually to do this project.  That means making some decisions.  Maybe for the purposes of this document, you can indicate that one of your tasks is precisely to sort out for yourself your primary approach to the archive you set out for yourself.

And speaking of archive: this comment goes a little bit to section four, but since I already made a comment there, I'll add my further two cents worth here.  At the level of writing, sometimes you tend to hover above your objects of study.  Ironically enough, your proposal sometimes seems immaterial.  I think you can give it some life by anchoring it more not just in theoretical frameworks, but in descriptions of what really drives your interest here.  If it's possible to weave some details in from the case studies that will be your chapters, this might go a long way to conveying what's so important, politically and intellectually, for this project.  Details are your friends here.  Use them.

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