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Blog Diss: LTP Introduction

This is the final version (for draft one) of my introduction.

Revision history, thus far: This is likely the most revised section thus far, with the Counterpublic Media Studies section running a close second. Based on feedbadk from the Grad Committee about my Statement of Research Plan, I added a definition of affective labour, and discussed how this working definition is related to other circulating understandings of the term; as always, are also minor stylistic and mechanical changes.


My proposed doctoral research will consider online labour with a particular emphasis on the role of affect. Though affect and particularly the term affective labour have long and contested histories, the latter is broadly defined within the boundaries of my project as the emotional relations and attachments influencing the generation and dissemination of digital media, as well as that media’s valuation. Such a definition varies slightly in focus from other approaches like Michael Hardt’s, which have tended to emphasize the products of affective labour, including “social networks, forms of community, [and] biopower” (96) over its processes. While it is of course impossible to strictly separate affective production from its effects, I focus primarily on the former because I argue that our understandings of the effects or implications of affective labour are currently better understood than the processes by which affective production and valuation occur. To understand why certain forms of digital labour contribute to and/or resist capital in particular ways, I contend we must first ask why particular subjects are drawn or directed to specific sites of digital production through affect, and how affect is also used to justify the value accorded to that work. Rather than separate from or secondary to larger discussions about contemporary labour under late capitalism, then, this project considers affective digital labour as situated within an ongoing set of struggles regarding labour and its articulation through race, gender, sexuality, and ability.

Proceeding from the claim that affective relationality is central to how and why online labour occurs, takes particular forms, and is accorded specific types of value, my study will emphasize four specific types of online work: fandom, piracy collectives, professional blogging, and crowdfunding campaigns. In each, I contend, affective conditions are foregrounded as a primary purpose, payment, and/or structuring logic of and for the labour. Of particular importance to this study will be the role of love. Fans are understood to labour because they love the media they are responding to; pirates, I will argue, attempt to recast the role of affect, decoupling love for a producer or a media object with its expression in the form of payment; professional bloggers are frequently said to labour out of love for their paid work (the 'love what you do' rhetoric), such that blogging is often presented as an (unpaid) opportunity for professional development; the success of a crowdfunding campaign, finally, relies upon the historical ties between crowds and a shared affective condition (Borch, Butsch), such that to love is to fund. While the affective attachment termed love produces a range of lived affective experiences, from anger and anxiety to pleasure and eroticism, my study considers love to be one of the dominant structural logic of affective digital labour.

Recent work by Sara Ahmed (2004a), Sianne Ngai (2005) and Lauren Berlant (2011), however, has demonstrated how specific affects “stick” (Ahmed), or create conditions of possibility (and impossibility) unevenly depending on a subject’s social and embodied conditions. Affects, in other words, produce and reproduce differential experiences of privilege and oppression while also playing a critical role in resistance toward those structures. My study, then, considers affective labour not as a static category with equally consistent effects on both labourers and consumers, but as a dynamic process inseparable from the differential material realities of the bodies involved. My treatments of female-dominated fandoms and piracy communities populated primarily by white, straight men, for instance, will emphasize the ways in which gendered, racial, sexual and ability-based expectations shape understandings of appropriate labour and compensation. Similarly, I will suggest that the ability of a campaigner to generate and sustain an affective condition resulting in a successful crowdfunding effort is frequently both dependent upon, and capable of challenging, normative affective associations with particular subjectivities.

The necessary interrelation of affects with the feeling bodies of the digital workforce, then, is not a tendency I view as limited only to the screen. Rather, the theoretical intervention of the project aims to unsettle accounts which depict precarity and cognitive/affective labour using the language of immaterial labour (Hardt, Lazzarato). I argue that considerations of affective labour online, particularly given that computers and computing have also historically been depicted as immaterial and disembodied (Daniels) present critical opportunities to complicate easy distinctions between materiality and immateriality. In working toward what I term an affective materialist framework, I will suggest that materialist considerations of production and circulation are strengthened by accounting for the necessary connection of those processes with the production and circulation of particular affective conditions and relations.

This theoretical framework and the specific objects grounding my study intersect to provoke a series of interrelated research questions that will guide my project:

1.     How does digital mediation engender unique forms of affect and affective labour? In what ways are these affective conditions and modes of circulation also extensions or re-articulations of previous and ongoing struggles by and for marginalized populations?

2.     What are the dominant affects influencing the production and valuation of online labour? How do those modes of attachment and relationality both enforce and challenge affect’s role in reproducing systemic inequality both on and offline? And how are modes of affective digital labour deemed either resistant or complicit with capital in ways that reflect and at times reinforce these inequities?

3.     How might engaging with affects and affective labour as material processes impact how digital labour is valued, regulated, and theorized? What would a materialist affective practice of resistance look, and feel, like?


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