Blog Post

Blog Diss: LTP Chapter Description (Intro/Chapter One)

Here's the final version (for first draft) of the intro/chapter one description.

Revision history, thus far: Minor stylistic and mechanical changes.


My dissertation will take the form of a five-chapter study. The first chapter will introduce the range of theory grounding the whole of the project. The following four chapters, each addressing a specific realm or form of digital labour, will be divided into two parts. In the first, titled Alternative Economies, I will consider affective labour within fandom and intellectual piracy communities. My focus here will be on how anti-capitalist modes of production and circulation, as well as the very characterization of these actsas resistant or alternative to capital, are shaped by the relationship between affective labour and the uneven precartiy of specific bodies within capital itself. In other words, I am interested in how the ability of different forms of online affective labour to characterize themselves, or be represented by others, as resistant to capital is often dependent on the differential levels of privilege and oppression capital enforces and depends upon to function.  Part Two, titled Integrated Economies, will take up professional blogging and crowdfunding campaigns. In many ways, part two performs the reverse operation of part one. That is, while part one begins with practices and communities often positioned at a distance from capital, part two foregrounds spaces that seem to be predicated upon an intimate relationship between affective digital labour and capitalist structures and ideologies. Yet, like in part one, my aim is to problematize this characterization. Focusing on uses of these sites by and for precarious populations, I argue that such seemingly overdetermined forms of work by no means preclude resistance to capital and its associated modes of normativity. My intent in structuring the project this way, however, is not to suggest that characterizations like alternative and integrated are entirely void of meaning or utility. Rather, I contend that a focus on the role of affective labour can provide a more nuanced understanding of the terms and conditions on which these distinctions are made.

In my introductory chapter, I will establish the overarching theoretical intervention of the study, which is a call for what I term an affective materialist mode of analysis. I will begin this call by tracing a partial genealogy of affect theory, with emphasis on its intersections with considerations of both labour and precarious subjectivities. The former I trace back primarily to the autonomist Marxist tradition, particularly the work of Maurizo Lazzarato, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri. While I will argue that the emphasis each places on affect as a site of production is significant, I will also introduce critiques from materialist feminists, including Silvia Federici, in order to complicate their accounts from a temporal and a gendered perspective. While Hardt and Negri (2004) are particularly invested in linking the rise of affective labour with the rise of informational or so-called post-industrial capitalism, Federici’s (2008) reminder that affective labour is tied both to a continuing need for industrial work as well as a long tradition of unwaged labour undertaken primarily by women, is crucial. I will indicate that the erasure of both these dimensions of affective labour is perfectly captured by the depiction of such work as ‘immaterial’, and suggest a turn away from both this language and the tendencies within theory it represents. 

This genealogy will also foreground several recent studies which have emphasized the crucial role of affective relationality for both maintaining and undermining various modes of systemic inequality. Of particular importance will be the work of Sara Ahmed (2004a, 2004b, 2010) and Lauren Berlant (2011). Berlant’s study, Cruel Optimism, considers how attachments to dreams about the capitalist ‘good life’ continue to shape contemporary affective realities, even as the impossibility of these goals becomes increasingly clear to large segments of the population. Ahmed’s work has explored the role specific affective conditions such as happiness (2010) and hatred (2004a) play in enforcing normativity. Like Berlant’s work, however, Ahmed also approaches affect at the structural level, suggesting that affects circulate and accumulate much like capital. I turn to these theories, then, not only to build upon interventions like Federici’s which have called for attention to how difference functions within affective labour, but also because both theorists provide important insights into the mechanisms and structures by which affects move and “stick” (Ahmed 2004a 125).

The introduction will also address the importance of considering affective labour in the specific context of digital media.  There is a particular urgency in addressing affective work’s mediation through new media, I suggest, because historically discourses surrounding computing have featured a similar emphasis on the ‘immaterial’ and ‘disembodied’ (Turkle, Nouraie-Simone). In “Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s): Race, Gender and Disembodiment” (2009), Jessie Daniels argues that such accounts, focusing on the “subversive potential of human/machine cyborgs, identity tourism, and disembodiment” often neglect how users of new media are located within “a global networked economy” (101). As a result, the enduring importance of lived experience, both on and offline, is neglected. Building on Daniel’s critique, as well as Matthew Kirschenbaum’s related (2008) call for a “forensic” approach to computing histories, I will argue that these accounts of ‘immateriality’ perform similar erasures of the importance of embodied difference. The risk that they might align with and enforce one another as digital workforces continue to grow is precisely the power behind using them to interrupt and complicate one another instead.

While highlighting the urgency of applying an affective materialist framework to a discussion of digital labour, however, I also hope to advance the claim that this approach is by no means exclusively relevant to treatments of new media. Indeed, part of what I identify as the value of this method even within the context of my own study is an ability to consider how particular affective conditions and associated types of labour are not unique to new media at all. This is not to neglect the important role of mediation in and beyond my work, but to suggest we might use an affective materialist method to understand how shifts in mediation both have and have not altered the affective dimensions of already-ongoing political, social and economic struggles. To treat affect and affective labour as material, in other words, becomes a means by which we might create more effective and historicized alliances between on and offline resistance.

Finally, I will close the introductory chapter of the work by foregrounding the importance of one particular affective condition or attachment central to my study: that of love. Rhetoric instructing contemporary labourers to ‘do what they love’ is still dominant in many fields, and I will suggest that on one hand love functions as a structural mode of attachment which, like Berlant (2011) says about cruel optimism, “might feel any number of ways” (13). For some, being instructed to love their work can produce feelings of anger, apathy or anxiety, while others feel empowered and affirmed by the same logic. At the same time, however, scholarship including Melissa Gregg’s (2012) Work’s Intimacy has considered how digital labour is increasingly felt and experienced as love, a site of erotic, psychological and physical pleasure. While my project explores affective conditions and expressions not always explicitly named love, then, I will suggest here that love, as both a structural and a relational/experiential condition, is a central structuring force under contemporary capitalism, particularly for digital labourers.


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