Welcome to Flow, Volume 25
Special Issue: FLOW Conference 2018 Recap

Selena Dickey and Kate Cronin / The University of Texas at Austin

You are in the good place.

For those of you who are new to Flow, we are an online journal of media studies organized and edited by graduate students in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. In its 14-year history, Flow has published over 1,500 columns written by more than 700 authors from across the U.S. and around the world. Our mission is to provide a space where researchers, teachers, students, and the public can read about and discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media. Last year, managing editors Cameron Lindsey and Lesley Willard curated a timely and generative relaunch of Flow to encompass both “scholarship that explores the histories and complexities of ‘television’ as an evolving media format,” while also taking advantage of the journal’s multimedia format and acknowledging “its broadening focus to more actively seek media, approaches, foci, and conversations that don’t easily lend themselves to categorization.” [ ((“Lindsey, Cameron and Lesley Willard. “Welcome to Flow: A Critical Forum on Media and Culture .” 2017. https://www.flowjournal.org/2017/10/welcome/”))]

Following up on this valuable expansion of what Flow looks at, in this year’s volume, we aim to expand who we reach. To this end, we are particularly concerned with how media is preserved and accessed, how we teach media, and how we do media (praxis). Furthermore, we are concerned with the increasing ephemerality of media formats and the precarious labor of those who produce, distribute, exhibit, and teach media.

If this sounds familiar, it is! These are the same themes that guided this year’s FLOW Conference on media preservation, praxis, and precarity. The biennial FLOW Conference is hosted by UT’s RTF graduate students and faculty and aims to promote conversation amongst scholars, members of the media industries, media activists, fans, and policymakers over crucial issues related to television and new/digital media.

FLOW 2018 logo
Click image for conference schedule

We decided to make this inaugural issue of Flow Journal, Volume 25, a special issue focused on the conference to spotlight the themes that pervaded the three days of rich conversation and to continue and provide wider access to some of the liveliest roundtable conversations that occurred. This issue’s coverage of FLOW 2018: Preservation, Praxis, and Precarity features:

A video recording of our plenary roundtable, Praxis in Practice. Drs. AJ Christian, Lori Morimoto, Randolph Lewis, and Christine Becker shared their insights and experience incorporating praxis into their research, scholarship, teaching, and activism.

“Field Notes” written by RTF grad student correspondents. These abbreviated pieces synthesize key takeaways and offer insights on themes running throughout various panels. Live tweeting of specific panels can be found by searching twitter for #flow2018 and the roundtable’s specific session number and letter, all of which can be found in the conference program if you click the above image.

Significant Findings and Further Questions. To push the questions and responses offered during this conference into practicable solutions and answers and to model the conference’s call for more practical applications within the field of media studies, we are publishing several critical reflections from participating scholars. We asked them to reflect on the answers, next steps, and/or further questions that emerged during their FLOW roundtable.

Tailored Twitter Coverage. Besides a brand new Twitter widget (check it out on the right!), we’ve embedded the live tweet coverage for each of the above corresponding panels when available.

Many thanks to the FLOW Conference Coordinating Committee, FLOW conference participants, and especially to field note contributors and roundtable conveners who shared their time, insight, and labor to help us make FLOW 2018: Preservation, Praxis, and Precarity more accessible to those who were not able to attend. We encourage you to help us keep these conversations going with any comments or questions on twitter using this volume’s hashtag #flowjournal25. And we look forward to how these conversations and themes are carried forward in multifaceted ways in our upcoming issues! Happy reading!

Image Credits
1. You are in the good place.




Praxis in Practice Roundtable

Our featured roundtable, “Praxis in Practice,” focused on the myriad actions and skills that media scholars and professionals employ in order to address questions of precarity and preservation within the field. We asked each of our four panelists, Dr. Randolph Lewis of UT Austin, Dr. AJ Christian from Northwestern University, Dr. Christine Becker from Notre Dame, and Dr. Lori Morimoto, an independent scholar, to prepare a brief statement about 1) how they conceptualize praxis, and 2) how they incorporate praxis into their scholarship, teaching, activism, etc. The statements were followed by an informal conversation moderated by Dr. Suzanne Scott and Jacqueline Johnson and a broader Q&A session with the attendees. The questions we sent each panelist to prompt their approach to the panel are listed below:

Rountable Questions

  1. What does praxis mean to you? How have you worked to incorporate praxis into your scholarship, teaching, activism, etc.. What are some of the challenges you have encountered? What have been some of your successes?
  2. Though many people in the field of media studies do want to create more accessible work for the public be that op-eds, podcasts, or blogs, many find it difficult to devote time to these activities, especially when the metrics employed within the tenure process continue to devalue them. What are some strategies that you all have implemented to confront these challenges?
  3. What potentials and limitations do you see for incorporating social media use and engagement within the classroom and for communicating our own research to the broader public?
  4. Can you discuss your philosophy on approaching citational practices? How have you worked to incorporate more marginalized voices into your reference lists and class syllabi? How do you grapple with or adapt scholarly citation practices to multimodal or public-facing work?



Field Notes from FLOW 2018: Preservation, Praxis, and Precarity

FLOW 2018 logo
After celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2016, we took a moment to look back and take stock of the changes in television and new media over the course of the conference’s run. This year, we turned our attention to three key areas that can easily be overlooked in our field of study: precarity, preservation, and praxis. We hope that this year’s conference provided a space for our intellectual community to take account of the obstacles we face as media scholars, educators, archivists, and activists, and to strategize collectively and productively about how we will work through these challenges in the years to come. What follows is a collection of field notes solicited from conference organizers. These abbreviated pieces synthesize key takeaways and offer insights on themes running throughout various panels.

Field Notes

  1. Investigating Programming Structures & Content through Nostalgia or Cycles
  2. Sports Media
  3. Bodies, Gender, and Queer Media
  4. Media Preservation
  5. Representation and Identity

Investigating Programming Structures & Content through Nostalgia or Cycles
by Margaret Steinhauer

Many industrially-focused panels at this year’s conference discussed television’s nostalgic (or cyclical) turns in content and programming structures. Perhaps the nostalgia that permeated much of the conference should also be examined in terms of its cyclical nature, as television routinely revisits successful strategies. Is nostalgia the root cause of the cycle, or a guise to attract audiences to similar content with less risk for networks and content creators? For instance, several speakers at “Remakes & Reboots: The Value of Mining Television’s Past” remarked on the ideological audience re-framing employed by television reboots like Fuller House, Gilmore Girls, and Murphy Brown. While phenomena like the post-network era and the second Golden Age percolate in scholarly discourses, how much of this “new” television is comprised of recycled structures?

This provocation returned in the following days at both “But What About Flow?” roundtables. In the first, we saw the extension of flow-like sequences applied to non-traditional television contexts like social media, online streaming platforms, and web series. Increasingly, these content sequences are not limited to the confines of their respective platforms, but connect to users’ daily activities through convergence and transmedia. Digital flow sequences are simultaneously always on and ephemeral, adding to the difficulties in analyzing their development and effects. In part two, focused on analog forms, the speakers and audience discussed the industrial motivations for flow-based structures, again returning to the notion of affective reflections or industrial strategy, and how the two are interwoven in television history. Additionally, what does such an understanding reveal about the ideological underpinnings of television production and its contextual histories? Through this return to television’s past, scholars are better equipped to ask how television will continue to develop in the face of changing distribution outlets, and assess why many of television’s competitors seek to recreate its norms. [page up]




Sports Media at FLOW 21018
by Brett Siegel

One need look no further than President Trump’s late-night Twitter barbs with professional athletes to see that we are clearly in the midst of a compelling moment for sports media, as well as a particularly generative context for those who study it. This year’s Flow Conference featured a pair of enlightening panels on the subject, investigating the complicated relationships between sports leagues, teams, and players all linked by varying degrees to media conglomerates, networks, and personalities. These intersections provide a productive outlet for examining the industrial formations of the contemporary sports-media complex, as well as the contested cultural meanings produced through its everyday procedures and practices. For instance, the panel on the Precarity, Preservation, and Praxis of Sports Media Labor raised questions about the impact of unequal opportunities and resources in determining the flow of athletes across national borders and competitive organizations. Similarly, the panel on the Sports Television Personality considered the circumscribed agency of an inherently raced and gendered journalist such as Jemele Hill in negotiating the professional expectations of an overarching corporation with the intensified imperatives of social justice. Both panels sought to rupture the false binary between sports and politics, illuminating the subtle operations of power that value certain sports, performances, and discourses above others and reconstitute these hierarchies through sports media programming and partnerships. Whether approaching these issues from the vantage point of a profit-oriented institution, a set of media texts, or an individual sports celebrity, the evolution of modern mediated sport and its ideological opportunities and consequences represent an exciting space for future research. The sports media panels at this year’s Flow Conference indicate that this endeavor is well under way. [page up]




Bodies, Gender, and Queer Media at FLOW 2018
by Kathy Cacace

A constellation of panels throughout the Flow conference helped make visible the connection between the precarity of certain forms of human (and nonhuman) life and the difficulties of preserving evidence of embodied cultural forms in traditional archives. “Preserving Pornographic Media,” convened by Desirae Embree, helped to highlight the continuing difficulty of preserving pornographic media, driven both by institutional and cultural taboos around embodied sexuality and the ephemerality of the media itself. “Flowing Forms, Pt. 1: Real Bodies” and “Flowing Forms, Pt 2: Virtual Bodies,” convened by Jennifer Lynn Jones, asked “how media and bodies affect each other,” and panelists wrenched open definitions bodies and life to consider provocative commonalities between the human and nonhuman, the virtual and the flesh, the mechanical and the biological, cyborg and bacterial, and human bodies of color, of size, and of different nationalities, probing the ethics owed to matter in its many forms. The “Queer Forms” panel convened by Curran Nault helped to unearth the queer bodies routinely excluded from or hidden within media archives, considering both repressive transnational contexts, historical media forms, and animated media. The theme of bodily precarity resonated with the conference concerns, prompting media scholars to consider the transience of life itself and the deeply moving potential for media to circulate and preserve embodied forms of difference—if preserved. [page up]




Media Preservation at FLOW 2018
by Eric Forthum

As one of the core themes of the 2018 Flow Conference, media preservation was a widely discussed topic over our three days of panels. The most prominent conversation surrounded the benefits and drawbacks of physical and digital media artifacts, platforms, and services. Especially as academic scholars grapple with the precarious job market, media scholars also face difficulties in acquiring and exhibiting media that has become increasingly scarce in its availability and affordability. Media conglomerates are strongly valuing their intellectual property and protecting against unlawful or widespread distribution of valuable media, so preservation has become an activist, highly individualized, and expensive task. While there are local organizations such as the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) or the Northeast Historic Film archive which attempt to preserve older home videos and films, there are limited resources available for those that want to preserve digital media housed on websites and other closed platforms. The conversations at various Flow panels ranged from how media platforms frequently cycle out old content in favor of the new, without much consideration for how obscured or difficult-to-find some media might become as a result; how we might find or further preserve daytime or other marginalized programming from the pre-digital era; how pornographic media is highly digitized and often misogynistic in what is privileged for preservation; and how sports media’s precarious existence and the oft-feminized labor surrounding it are important ideological issues. Preservation also remains an institutional issue for entities such as the Library of Congress, as conversions to DVDs or digital copies become a contested issue with regards to long-term viability. As we look ahead to a media landscape that increasingly aims to provide access to products rather than ownership of individual artifacts, media preservation will likely become more difficult and uncertain in a predominantly digital era. [page up]




Representation and Identity at FLOW 2018
by Nathan Rossi

Across three days of roundtables at FLOW 2018, current contentions in U.S. and global politics and culture had a clear influence on numerous panelists’ thoughts and provocations concerning representation and identity in media. Panelists on the “Media(ted) Archives” roundtable discussed the gendering of bad objects, such as video games, soap operas, and gossip and how the masculinization or feminization of these media texts informs their worth in archival practices. Given social movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, Lamiyah Bahrainwala’s intervention that gossip needed to be taken more seriously as a form of archive-building was particularly compelling.

The “Latinx Representation in Hollywood” panel on Friday afternoon raised several important questions about why visible progress for Latinxs in mainstream media industries remains behind other marginalized groups. Collectively the panelists contended that the industry’s construction of Latinx audiences needs to be problematized. Diana Leon-Boys examination of Elena of Avalor (2016-) pointed to how Disney has often used representation in their animated programming as a “testing ground” for the rest of their conglomerate empire. Response to animated representation has often instructed future representation in their live action media, which demonstrated just one example of the multiple stages of Latinx audience construction.

Finally, two Saturday panels worth noting for their contribution to discussions regarding representation and identity were “Aesthetics and Anxieties: Contemporary Dystopian Television” and “Considering Contemporary Television’s Ideological Power.” The former emphasized how recent dystopian television has represented the fears of white liberalism, which are more often than not, fears that marginalized people are already facing. Panelist Mychal Shanks’ presentation of a whiteness spectrum of dystopian shows where The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017-) landed at the “most white” end and Netflix’s 3% (2016-) appeared towards the “least white” end elicited a particularly strong response from the audience. The latter panel’s considerations of the intersection between post-racial television ideology, hipster racism, and the recent genre of what Taylor Nygaard and Jorie Lagerwey (2017) have called Horrible White People shows was particularly illuminating because it reinforced the pitfalls of colorblind casting. [page up]




Considering Contemporary Television’s Ideological Power
Isabel Molina-Guzmán / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Convening Question:

As we consider the changing landscape of television and new media, TV Studies itself seems precarious. The constant stream of technological development, increasing fragmentation of audiences, and expansion of programming and distribution outlets has called into question the utility of foundational TV Studies concepts like networks, flow, and especially the cultural forum (Newcomb and Hirsch 1983). The sheer quantity of TV production and the variety of ways to consume TV can make it feel impossible to find shared reference points. Older formulations of television as a cultural forum, a place where large national audiences share cultural experiences and hash out complex or taboo ideological changes or differences, have thus fallen out of favor. If television’s representational power is no longer consolidated in or monopolized by a narrow range of dominant institutional voices, television arguably seems more diverse and its power more diffuse and dispersed. Yet, in the contemporary political climate, in which consciously sowing openly affective and ideological division is an effective path to power, it seems that denying the continued cultural power of television is an effective way to dismiss a powerful mass cultural forum still in operation. As Stuart Hall taught us, television representation has real power to create cultural reality, not simply to reflect it. This question asks us to consider, then, how TV scholars can grapple with these new technologies, expanding content offerings, and fragmented audience configurations while still acknowledging a broad or comprehensive sense of the ideological power and influence of TV on audiences?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Laura Brunner, Metropolitan State University of Denver
Isabel Molina-Guzmán, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Justin Owen Rawlins, University of Tulsa
James M. Elrod, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
*Taylor Nygaard, University of Denver

*denotes panel convener

Whiteness, Racial Capitalism and the Ideological Flow of Television

Throughout FLOW’s roundtable conversations, my thoughts kept circling back to Cedric Robinson’s concept of racial capitalism defined as the interdependence between capitalism and racial inequality and violence to produce economic value. [ ((For more on the concept of racial capitalism see Cedric Robinson Black Marxism (North Carolina Press, 1983).))] Whether the discussion was about production, archiving, texts, gaming, it seemed white normativity and privilege was always in the space, always a question to be, but rarely, asked. “Television” as a form of Western cultural production stabilizes white patriarchal heteronormative privilege thereby preserving Capital, with a capital C. [ ((Jodi Melamed (2015) “Racial Capitalism,” Journal of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association (1) 1, 76-85.))]

Televisual Structures of Whiteness.

In the contemporary context, the technologies by which TV texts are produced and disseminated are continually innovated. And sometimes the world on our screens appears radically diverse and inclusive. But the structural conditions of televisual production in all its forms remains embedded in racial, sexual, and gender inequality. As Jodi Melamed observes, “we also increasingly recognize that contemporary racial capitalism deploys liberal and multicultural terms of inclusion to value and devalue forms of humanity differentially to fit the needs of reigning state capital orders.” [ ((Melamed, 77.))] Industry reports out of UCLA, USC, and Columbia document the people 1) who own the media, 2) who greenlight new projects, 3) who represent actors and cast the programs, 4) who produce, write, or direct, and, 5) the guilds who provide skilled technical labor are dominated by predominantly white, heterosexual, cis-men. [ ((See https://bunchecenter.ucla.edu/2018/02/28/new-hollywood-diversity-report-2018/; https://annenberg.usc.edu/recent-commission-card; https://fusiondotnet.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/latino_media_gap_report.pdf))]

Colorblind Ideology and the Televisual Flow of Whiteness

Colorblindness is the ideological mechanism of inequality by which whiteness is maintained and reified in mainstream U.S. television. It is an ideology evidenced in colorblind and multicultural ensemble casting practices – a casting strategy that uses racial difference to erase racial specificity, engages performances of ethnicity in order to homogenize culture, that makes queerness visible without subjectivity. [ ((See Isabel Molina-Guzmán Latinas & Latinos on TV: Colorblind Comedy in the Post-Racial Network Era (2018, University of Arizona Press); Sarah Nilsen & Sarah Turner (eds) The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America (2014, New York University Press); and Kristen Warner The Cultural Politics of Colorblind Casting (2015, Routledge).))] It benefits from media industries’ strategic use of racial exceptionalism through the visibility of the exceptional few and the social acceptance of hipster racism, implicit racism, and affective inequities in media texts. Both are central components of the culture of civility in which white norms of behavior are reinforced and maintained. [ ((For more on heteronormative whiteness and the culture of civility see Bernadette M. Calafell’s (2012) “Monstrous Femininity: Constructions of Women of Color in the Academy” Journal of Communication Inquiry 36 (2), 111-130. https://doi.org/10.1177/0196859912443382))] The real-world consequence of colorblindness is that it minimizes the need for ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender equity by making difference culturally, socially and politically irrelevant.

Instead of colorblindness, we as media producers, audiences, and academics should demand and advocate for color consciousness. We must “see” whiteness and difference and become conscious of the filters and biases used to make sense of the world and those who are different from us. Contemporary political discourses, rhetoric, actions, and policies are raising the social, cultural, and political stakes of “seeing” television’s ideological drive.





The Political Economy of Digital Platforms
Samantha Close / DePaul University

Convening Question:

In a time of platform-plenty, researchers still tend to separate and silo discussions of e-commerce (Etsy, Patreon), social networking (Twitter, Tumblr), and streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu) by field and specialty. However, as these platforms proliferate and evolve, as these elements merge and mesh with platforms like Twitch and YouTube, it is clear that platforms of all kinds are increasingly important—for audiences, researchers, and corporations alike. In recent years, legacy media, tech, and start-up companies alike have begun to capitalize on platforms, from Hulu’s joint-network ownership, to Disney and WB’s proprietary platforms, to new start-ups like NewTV and OTV. With these developments, it is clear that platforms—in all their varied and hybrid forms—are central to media studies, both in terms of facilitating and affecting participatory cultures and shaping macro-level issues of production, distribution, and exhibition. This roundtable delves into the political economy and participatory cultures of digital platforms, considering growing concerns such as labor and compensation, celebrity and authenticity, governance and ownership, surveillance and opacity, curation and recommendation algorithms, preservation and access.

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

William Moner, Elon University
Samantha Close, DePaul University
Myles McNutt, Old Dominion University
Benjamin Burroughs, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Aymar Jean Christian, Northwestern University

Reflections

Reflections require both an original object to cast them and an unstable future medium to pick them up. It’s in this sense of speculative doubling that I offer you my reflections on the “Political Economy of Digital Platforms” roundtable at Flow 2018. The discussion between William Moner, myself, Myles McNutt, Benjamin Burroughs, Aymar Jean Christian, moderator Steve Malcic, and a standing-room only audience both lively and thoughtful, informs these reflections. Also incredibly generative were the contributions of those who brought our roundtable out into the digital space, like Rusty Hatchel, Eric Forthun, Andy Fischer Wright, and JSA Lowe, as well as those of everyone who engaged with our discussions “out there.” The overall theme that brought us all together was “Precarity, Preservation, and Praxis.” And our discussion was driven by those concerns of:

  • What are the working conditions and opportunities of people who create media on platforms?
  • How can this media ecosystem and its output be preserved, both for study and for cultural memory?
  • How do people and technologies actually create content on digital platforms?

From independent films depicting the Canadian experiences on the National Film Board of Canada’s digital space to teenage aspiring social media stars on YouTube to the overwhelmingly female crafters selling their handmade wares on Etsy, digital platforms host a vibrant ecology of content. The vast majority of people making this content receive little, inconsistent remuneration. The argument—seen most often in discussion of intellectual property and copyright—that if creators aren’t paid professionals, we won’t see any more creative production worthy of the name, has been definitively proven false. But this roundtable illuminated another undeniable truth. We are in danger of a contemporary Lost Generation.

I want to make it immediately clear that I am not suggesting the horrors of World War I are somehow equivalent to the work of media creation on platforms. They’re not. And the platform workers on YouTube, Etsy, and Vimeo we talked about are in many ways the glamorous flipside of poor and working-class people in the United States and across the globe who labor on crowdsourcing and task-based platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk or TaskRabbit. But what I am suggesting is that the current configuration of digital platforms is burning out a full generation, at the very least, of vital talent. Burnout, in the form of exhaustion, debt, depression, and a cornucopia of health issues, comes in startlingly similar fashion to whole families of toy influencers, audacious young male video provocateurs, and cheerful crafters who suddenly close their successful shops. The audience seemed startled at the dystopian picture of anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt, and dependence on spouses, second incomes, and fickle institutions that we painted. I wonder if it is the shock of recognition. Academia, these days, has a lot in common with platforms.

There are other clear takeaways for scholars. We must be specific and precise in analyzing what a platform’s product is. YouTube’s commodity is data. Vimeo’s commodity, despite looking quite similar, is content. The way these companies manage their algorithms is, correspondingly, quite distinct. We must also be clear about who we mean when we say “users.” Different user stakeholder groups play significantly different roles and have different concerns, which neither begin nor end with “privacy” and surveillance.

It is a precarious moment for anyone who cares about preserving and realizing the dream of radically expanding creative praxis that animates these platforms. Knowing what we know now about platforms, looking back at the histories of media like radio, what can be done? Should platform creators unionize? Such is the call of esports figures like Chris Kluwe and the thought of many in the audience. I’m skeptical that the political economic imaginary of union organizing, pitting workers against management, resonates now. Creating non-profit platforms like Open Television, the National Film Board, or the Archive of Our Own, has produced notable successes but remains only one degree less financially precarious than individual creators’ work. As one audience member remarked to me later, it’s evocative that the roundtable discussion didn’t even consider governmental regulation as a possibility. What we must keep firmly in mind is that these are not problems of scarce resources. They are problems of resource distribution and a failure of imagination as those with access to funding, like Netflix’s eye-popping production budgets, back away from participatory production and return to broadcast models. The explosion of user-generated content on digital platforms of the last few decades has been a glimpse of a castle in the sky. Now is the time to invest in foundations under it.




Flowing Forms, Pts. 1 & 2: Real and Virtual Bodies
Jennifer Lynn Jones / Indiana University

Convening Question:

Media presuppose bodies. In their role as moderators, media act “in-between” for bodies: translating signals, distributing content, connecting people. Media are thus responsive to bodies, and likewise bodies are responsive to media, with both transforming through their interactions, bridging the physiological, the technical, and the cultural. Bodies are therefore more than just receptors for media content but constitutive to media forms and necessary for media praxis, arguably performing like another platform for media convergence. However, bodies remain undertheorized in media studies outside of representation.

As such, this query seeks responses to illuminate how media and bodies affect each other, especially through moments of significant cultural, industrial, and technological change. Specifically, how do changes in media and bodies correspond? How do they shape each other? How do these connections and their attendant transformations relate to hegemonic systems, whether legitimating operations in media or identity hierarchies in bodies? What exchanges between bodies and media are critical to consider in contemporary culture, and what must be further examined from the past? Why do these interactions matter, and how might they affect experiences of both media and embodiment in the future?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

*Jennifer Lynn Jones, Indiana University
Maya Iverson, University of California, Santa Cruz
Nicole Strobel, University of California, Santa Barbara
Hyo Jung Kim, Stony Brook University

*denotes panel convener

Gathering the Remains

“…. what is expressly material, and what ‘matters,’ in systems which are typically conceived of as invisible or immaterial—both within media and within the body itself….”

I start with this quote from Rachael Ball’s response to my “Flowing Forms” query as the interrogation it suggests resounds in my review of the query’s two roundtables. Using another’s words also seems evocative of the concerns of the query on the connections between bodies and media, and the complications in my task to summarize multiple contributions at a conference through the voice of one person. As a medium for these conversations, I intend to channel the most persistent themes and conduct lingering questions from what still seems buried there.

In my review of the roundtables—culled from written responses, session discussions, and hashtagged tweets—I perceive four overlapping themes: boundaries and limits; materiality; identity, power, and care; and utopic versus dystopic effects. The first involves the very division of the roundtables between “real” and “virtual” bodies. It questions the lines between bodies and media, between natural and “unnatural” or acceptable and unacceptable bodies, how far is too far, and why those demarcations matter. Some of those are ethical as Nicole Strobel examines in Vice’s exploitation of marginalized “radical embodiments” to expand its brand. Others are constitutive, as Adam Resnick notes in his estimation that speculative fiction often limits the potential of trans- and posthuman forms.

description of image

Chrissy Metz and Carla Hall on The Chew

Next, contemporary concerns with digital media and virtual experiences often overshadow considerations of materiality in the relationship between bodies and media. Ball’s invocation of special effects bodies in the multiplatform true crime genre helps to “reinscribe biological materiality of all kinds into our interaction with both digital and analogue media widely conceived.” Daniel Reynolds accentuates materiality through the use of hands holding game controllers in Nintendo advertising, arguing that this portrayal “levels them up” as constitutive parts of a shared system.


Hands holding game controllers

The whiteness of those hands “matters” here as well, connecting to the next theme of power, identity, and care. Maya Iverson’s response centers media archives in (re)constructions of African-American identities as “we are still struggling to overwrite and annotate how our bodies are marked by the condition of social death” through ongoing oppressions. My study of the somatic convergence of actress Chrissy Metz with her This Is Us’ character Kate through weight loss reveals how makeover logics lead to a transmediation of the show.

Last but not least, traces of the utopic and dystopic are omnipresent, interrogating how these connections between bodies and media create meaningful changes to lived conditions, even beyond the human. Hyo Jung Kim looks at how digital media technologies give users “renewed cognition of the world and redefine the boundaries of their physical body” as a kind of “imaginative subjectivity” that can be used to “reframe (their) agency in relation to the power structure,” like remixing Trump singing “Despacito” in a tactical “playful liberation.” Melissa Avdeeff posits that “(a)s new bodily alternations become possible in an era of post- and transhumanism, it will become increasingly important to study the ways in which media… imagines and perceives of a ‘natural’ body, and how those depictions influence dominant understandings of those potential futures,” using Björk’s “Utopia” video as one media example that envisions the potential of human evolution into nature.


From Bjork’s “Utopia” music video

What questions remain to raise? One area for further consideration is political economy. How do the power dynamics in material economic relations affect these entities and their connections? Another that was present but could have gone farther involves identities and boundaries. In her written response, Avdeeff questions the definition of a body, and others in attendance at the roundtables echoed it, especially in relation to race, gender, and disability. The choice of the term “body” is provocative in that way, suggesting a corpus devoid of identity markers, but of course, still structured by dominant meanings of identities that “matter.” Dissecting such constructions and their relationship to media is at the heart of the “Flowing Forms” query and given the generative response to the query will hopefully be ongoing.

Image Credits
1. Chrissy Metz and Carla Hall on The Chew
2. Hands holding game controllers, author’s screen shot
3. From Bjork’s “Utopia” music video




Media(ted) Archives: The Politics of Saving & Making Media Histories
Lamiyah Bahrainwala / Southwestern University

Convening Question:

Few people would reject the premise that digitally archiving the mass media—film, television, radio, video games, and the like—is important cultural and scholarly work. Though it it can require tremendous human and computational effort, such labor facilitates the study of fragile, rare, or inaccessible materials, as well as enables the “distant reading” (i.e., data mining) of these materials en masse. The democratization of media past, present, and future—thanks especially to digital archives—would thus seem to be an unassailable pursuit, no matter if done in special collections, an academic unit, a community center, a not-for-profit organization, or even a transnational conglomerate. But it is not—a legion of obstacles stand in the way of making media archives fully fulgent. From the legal mechanisms of intellectual property protection, to the limited resources available to archivists to do their work, to the nomenclatural policing of designations such as “archive” and “archivist,” to the paucity of international standards by which materials might be expeditiously processed and located, the politics and practices of media archive creation, management, and sustainability are often confusing, discouraging, and infuriating. What is it about the mass media that complicates arguments promoting their historical value? What ideological motives might connect the policing of archive development with other questions circulating in media studies such as those concerned with monoculturalism, casuistry, and the dangers of presentism? Finally, how can we as a practical and pedagogical matter support existing and emerging archives that will aid future generations in the making of media histories?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Lamiyah Bahrainwala, Southwestern University
Elana Levine, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
*Matt Payne/Ken McAllister/Judd Ethan Ruggill, University of Notre Dame and University of Arizona

Bad Archives, Bad Workers

One semester, I repeatedly heard from students about particular classmates who made them uncomfortable by playing “devil’s advocate” for white supremacy. At another time, I heard, on separate occasions, from two students who were frustrated by a professor slanting discussion by enforcing rigid discussion-leading formats. However, all these students framed their information as “private” and not worth “pursuing.” This is not because the information was not credible – when similar thoughts are echoed by more than one student but not many students, it signals a subtle misuse of power. However, these reports accumulate into archives, and include privately shared experiences such as the ones about Harvey Weinstein that prompted investigation and eventually triggered the cascade of revelations surging through the #MeToo movement. Yet, these revelations and this movement, among others, simply signal that earlier archives that had been considered “bad” archives – uncorroborated, unsubstantiated, sleazy – had been allowed new credibility. We must consider the increasing importance of uncovering such “bad” archives and thus interrogate the politics of legitimacy and respectability. A “bad” archive lets individuals who are not in positions of power share information about power. It is an archive because such information sharing is cumulative, and builds an external repository – mandatory reporters in schools and universities, and elsewhere in academe. They are “bad” because they are not formalized, but also because they deal with “bad” objects that we stigmatize – harassment and abuse, largely gendered and often physical. However, such bad archives are the foundation for anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-ableist work because they delineate microaggressions, which are largely invisible, often unconscious, and difficult to document and qualify. They rely on the accumulation of narratives to yield patterns.

However, both the creators and gatekeepers for bad archives experience precarity. The contents of bad archives are mired in stigma, and, typically, institutions – including universities – do not legitimize them. Thus, due to the nebulous nature of the information and the disproportionate implications of both reporting and not reporting such issues, mandatory reporters occupy a deeply precarious position. I make this argument keeping in mind the increasing precarity of the academic labor market and the increased feminization and materially-expressed devaluation of academic labor in general. The feminization of labor and the stigmatization of bad archives converge to dictate how academics navigate the job market by relying on privately shared information. The feminization of labor selects particular labor to remain uncompensated, i.e. domestic labor and adjunct labor. Bad archives, meanwhile, are aligned with bodies performing feminized labor: gossip is aligned with women and the “domestic” realm; adjuncts, meanwhile, who suffer exploitation through the removal of health benefits and erasure of their labor, rarely have their feedback formally solicited by universities and are rarely trained formally by universities. In my own experiences as an adjunct at two universities, I was trained informally “over coffee” by departing adjuncts. It is worth considering how constructing archives as “bad” dislodges it as a form of labor even as it is used as a tool to navigate opportunities for compensated labor.




Media Discourses: The Cultural Forum of School Shootings
Michael Rennett / UT Austin

Convening Question:

Following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this year, Donald Trump claimed that violent video games, movies, and the perpetrator’s mental health were to blame for the massacre. Even though scholars and researchers have debunked the hypodermic model of media effects that sutures violent entertainment and violent youth (see Jenkins), the perpetuation of these causal connections stalls any progress to prevent future school shootings. Trump’s statement about gun violence mimicked those surrounding the causes behind the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, precariously leaving the public debate in the same place that it was nearly two decades ago.

This roundtable endeavors to discuss the media’s role in framing the narratives behind the causes of school shootings, and how those narratives may affect public debates and political legislation about this issue (see Birkland and Lawrence). In their theorization of television as a “cultural forum,” Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch suggest that television programs can highlight and comment on ideological issues. How does the media frame the issues surrounding mass shootings? Is there a distinction between the topics that fictional representations and news coverage of mass shootings represent? For instance, do fictional representations concentrate on mental health issues rather than explicitly arguing for gun control legislation? How has the cultural forum changed with new media technology? The breadth of the internet has led to the dissemination of far-right conspiracy theories surrounding “crisis actors” to mainstream media outlets. For instance, a conspiracy theory video concerning David Hogg – a survivor of the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – was the top trending YouTube video on February 21, 2018 before its removal and Hogg denied these false accusations during a CNN interview. How has user-driven content like these videos shaped (or been shaped by) the current public sphere surrounding school shootings? Finally, how has the increase of niche partisan television networks and online communities affected the cultural forum? Is media increasingly becoming an “echo chamber” (see DiFonzo), thereby preventing any meaningful progress in this debate?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, University of North Texas
Ivy Ashe, University of Texas at Austin
*Michael Rennett, University of Texas at Austin
Julia G. Raz, Santa Monica College
Phil Scepanski, Marist College

*denotes panel convener

Reflections

In “Media Discourses: The Cultural Forum of School Shootings,” my fellow roundtable panelists and I were concerned with the conversations which emerge after school shootings. The dialogue which follows tragic events like Columbine, Newtown, or Parkland tends to follow the same script with politicians and political commentators often placing blame on violent video games, movies, and the perpetrator’s mental health. As the convener of this roundtable, my frustration with this all-too-common script became the inspiration behind its main question: Have we as a society really learned nothing since Columbine? Will we just repeat the same discussion as more and more children get senselessly murdered in their classrooms?

On this roundtable, the other panelists and I discussed the ways in which the media frames school shootings to investigate and interrogate the common public and political discourse. Thanks to the conference coordinators, our roundtable featured various unique perspectives on this topic. I opened our conversation by discussing how school shootings are portrayed on American fictional television programs. Using Newcomb and Hirsch’s theory of television as a cultural forum, I argue that fictional portrayals help formulate our discussions of this topic. I find that bullying and mental health are the two most common issues and it is no surprise that they shape our conversations about school shootings. Ivy Ashe considered news coverage of school shootings, particularly how school shooting survivors from Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas used social media to tell their own stories and control their respective narratives. Ashe argues that hashtags like #NeverAgain and #IfIDieInASchoolShooting allow survivors to break the traditional 24-hour news cycle. Ashe optimistically considers how this change provides a much-needed jolt to the conventional news script, and hopes that traditional media will consider survivors’ voices in the digital age. Next, Jacqueline Vickery expanded our discussion from school shootings to general gun violence. Vickery mentions how school shootings centralize the ongoing debates about gun violence due to their media coverage, but people are often reticent to politicize these tragedies. Instead, she argues that the debate over gun violence and gun control should be continued through ongoing news coverage of homicides, suicides, and police shootings. Like Ashe, Vickery wants us to examine the youth-led movements on digital media platforms as a way to continue discussions about gun violence outside of the traditional media. Meanwhile, Phil Scepanski focused on the connections between media rituals and mediated trauma. Scepanski notes how the unfortunate regularity of school shootings leads to repeated national rituals like the 24-hour media “script” which Ashe and Vickery mention. Moreover, Scepanski observes how much of the rhetoric in this ritual is constructed around nation-building, specifically coming together as a country to support those directly affected by the tragedy. Finally, Julia Raz provided a personal perspective to the roundtable by discussing the on-campus aftermath of the active shooter at Santa Monica College where she works. Because she has students who survived the shooting, she focuses on the pedagogical implications of this difficult subject. Raz advocates for a flipped classroom approach to discuss gun violence and gun control, but understands the reluctance and fear when educators may have to broach the topic.

Due to our unique viewpoints, we had a productive conversation about both real and fictional school shootings. We discussed the repeated scripts of news coverage and how fictional television programs tend to mimic those conversations in their narratives. We also focused on how we would like to see those scripts evolve in the future, with greater emphasis being placed on gun control and toxic masculinity. By analyzing the current media discourses of school shootings, we hope to further these discussions, deepen our understanding of the issue, and—ideally—see school shootings and all forms of gun violence come to an end.




Preserving Pornographic Media
Desirae Embree / Texas A&M University

Convening Question:

Much has been said of the need for archival preservation of pornographic media texts which, because of their specific cultural function and means of circulation, tend toward ephemerality. However, as Frances Ferguson and David Squires have argued, the very process of archivization, in its sequestration of sexual materials from the world of erotic life, may render these materials un-pornographic. Yet, as scholars such as David Church and Whitney Strub have argued, the archive itself is not an erotically neutral space, as both historiography and preservation efforts are motivated by a passionate attachment to and investment in pornography’s ephemerality. These issues are compounded when one considers pornography’s move online and the proliferation of new media technologies, which, as Tim Dean notes, seem to produce “more porn archives than we know what to do with.” How ought the field balance the ongoing need for pornographic film and video preservation while also attending to the shifting media landscape and to the need for new tools to study it? What strategies are needed to archive, organize, and preserve new media pornography? Are there specific kinds of pornographic media texts (for example, public access cable shows) that are currently being overlooked by archival efforts? What theoretical frameworks are needed to facilitate work on pornography that is missing from the archive and is potentially lost? Is there a way to either avoid or account for the effects that institutional legitimation has on erotic texts? Would this require new archival practices?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Devin McGeehan Muchmore, Harvard University
*Desirae Embree, Texas A&M University
John Paul Stadler, Duke University
Peter Alilunas, University of Oregon
Joe Rubin, Film archivist/independent scholar

*denotes panel convener

Reflections

When I initially wrote the question that convened the panel on “Preserving Pornographic Media,” I had perhaps naively assumed that pornography scholars were, more or less, working on the same objects and encountering the same kinds of problems in their respective research. However, what struck me most about the submitted responses was how different our textual objects, and by extension, our preservational concerns were. This is, of course, the difficulty of working on a loose category of media texts that really have only one thing in common (sex) and sometimes not even that. While all of the panelists did share a common problem—namely, pornography’s status as a “bad object”—we found throughout our discussion that our respective objects of study came from distinctly different contexts of production, distribution, and consumption. As a result, different approaches to archivization and preservation were required in order to better facilitate current and future research in our areas. That some of our concerns about preservation overlapped and others did not just emphasized the need for ongoing, rigorous contextualization of all generalizations about pornography, as well as its precarity, which is unevenly distributed across production communities and canons.

This was, in fact, the major impetus for my own position paper on the little-known and short-lived “dyke porn” movement in the late 20th century, in which lesbians and other queer women made, for the first time, a relatively expansive sex media culture that reflected their desires and sexual practices. In my research, I found that these texts were often missing from archives known for holding large quantities of queer pornography. I also found that because these texts were produced by queer women working under the pressures exerted by multiple levels of social and economic marginalization, they entailed unique research questions and problems that required new strategies for collection, archivization, preservation, and explanation.

This sentiment was echoed by both Peter Alilunas and John Paul Stadler in their comments on what is an approaching crisis in pornography and sexuality studies—namely, the complete lack of protocols for preserving digital, internet-based texts. As both noted, much of the pre-history of contemporary sexual culture has been irretrievably lost, as early pornographic websites and forums have lapsed into non-existence. Alilunas, in particular, noted that even if there were an investment and concerted effort to preserve this important moment in adult media history (there isn’t), we currently lack the necessary tools to do so. Stadler echoed this point, noting that in his study of early “cyberporn,” he had to rely not on the texts themselves, which had vanished into the ether, but on their various, remediated incarnations in media forms more likely to attract archival attention and, as a result, preservation.

In his comments, Devin McGeehan Muchmore discouraged a pessimistic attitude about the preservation of sex materials, noting that ephemerality and the threat of loss is endemic to all historical study. Muchmore urged us to use methods similar to those employed by Stadler, noting that, however incomplete, existing archival collections could be used in the study of otherwise unavailable texts and communities. However, Joe Rubin cautioned against the dangers of seeing sex media as purely historical objects, noting that the current utilitarian approach to their preservation renders the urgency of preserving original negatives and best existing prints irrelevant; as long as the sex content is visible then the preservation is good enough. Instead, Rubin urged scholars to approach pornographic media preservation in the same way that we might any other cinematic object—with an eye to its intrinsic aesthetic value and a commitment to preserving it in its best possible form.

I think that my fellow panelists would agree with me when I say that the most productive, exciting part of this conversation was the involvement of Rubin, who is actively doing the work of preserving and re-releasing important sex films, as well as archivists and librarians in the audience whose presence and engagement sparked a much-needed interdisciplinary dialogue about these issues. Clearly, pornographic media poses very particular challenges for both researchers and archivists. In order to adequately address them, we will need to maintain and expand this conversation by actively working to bring archivists, curators, librarians, and computer/information scientists into our disciplinary spaces, as well as taking our research to theirs. The interdisciplinary conversation that happened at FLOW was an important step in that direction, and I look forward to seeing it continue in the coming years.





Latinx Representation in Hollywood
Arcelia Gutiérrez / University of Michigan

Convening Question:

The 2017 Emmys were lauded as the most diverse ever, with key wins for Black actors Donald Glover and Sterling K. Brown, Black screenwriter Lena Waithe, South Asian American actor and screenwriter Aziz Ansari, and British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed. This vision of diversity again left out Latinxs, however, with only a nomination in the guest actor category for Nuyorican playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda and a win for half Argentinian-American Alexis Bledel, also in a guest actor category. Part of the problem is Latinxs are still relegated to bit parts on television, with few opportunities to land lead roles. Save for the critically lauded Jane the Virgin (2014-present), Netflix hits Narcos (2015-present) and One Day at a Time (2016-present), and a small handful of other shows on cable networks, Latinx protagonists and storylines continue to be rare. This is despite the fact that there are over 55 million Latinos in the U.S. with a purchasing power of $1.5 trillion, according to the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Moreover, the problem is not limited to television. After not one Latinx actor was nominated in an acting category for the fifth straight year at the 2018 Oscars, the NHMC and its allies promised to protest the six major studios for their marginalization of Latinxs in the industry and in film narratives.

This panel will seek to discuss the current status of Latinxs in Hollywood. While some interesting strides have been made in the last year, such as Latinos Édgar Ramírez and Ricky Martin co-starring as Italian fashion designer, Gianni Versace, and his Italian partner, Antonio D’Amico, in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018), and continued success for established stars like Gina Rodriguez, Pedro Pascal, and Oscar Isaac on the big screen, there seems to be an enduring resistance to green-lighting series and films revolving around Latinx characters or communities. In other words, “Peak-TV” is not making room for Latinxs, and increased diversity at awards shows post-#OscarsSoWhite has not impacted Latinx representation. Why does visible progress for Latinxs in TV and film continue to lag behind that of other minority groups on both the industry level and on camera? How can Hollywood push past seeing diversity as a White/Black binary?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Crystal Camargo, Northwestern University
Diana Leon-Boys, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Arcelia Gutierrez, University of Michigan
Angharad Valdivia, University of Illinois

Assessing the State of Latinxs
in Television and Film

Why does visible progress for Latinxs in TV and film continue to lag behind that of other minority groups on both the industry level and on camera? This was the central questioned posed by Nathan Rossi, which allowed Dr. Angharad Valdivia, Diana Leon-Boys, Crystal Camargo, Dr. Mary Beltrán (moderator), and I to come together and discuss the current state of Latinxs in Hollywood. Through a lively dialogue, our panel was able to address issues relating to policy, industry, representation, remakes, and Disney as they pertain to Latinxs. The roundtable posed that the media’s history of systemic whiteness and discrimination has resulted in the limited participation of ethnoracial minorities, particularly Latinxs, in these industries. This is evidenced through the privileging of whiteness and the marginalization of people of color historically in the issuing of broadcasting licenses, the ownership of radio and television stations, and access to film schools. Processes of deregulation and neoliberalism have exacerbated this structural inequality by undoing policies and programs intended to increase the participation of minorities in the media and further marginalizing Latinx content creators, audiences, and markets.

The industry thereby fails to perceive Latinxs as a sizable audience and instead treats it as a niche audience, which limits the opportunities available to create mainstream Latinx-centered cultural products. Latinx shows are instead often relegated to the arena of televisual remakes, which are seen as proven successes and less risky. While reboots have provided opportunities for Latinx representation and talent through series such as Jane the Virgin, Queen of the South, and One Day at a Time, these reboots also place constraints on the shows’ abilities to succeed. Particularly, the rebooting of nostalgic American, white-centered shows with thriving fandoms, as in the case of Charmed, challenge the remake to bridge the legacy of the original show while attempting to integrate Latinx cultural authenticity. This in turn places Latinx representation in a precarious position.

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One Day at a Time

The tension between appealing to a mass audience and a perceived niche audience is also demonstrated in Disney’s approach toward Latinxs. Disney and other media conglomerates do not seek to diversify the representational landscape and their creative talent because it’s the right thing to do. Rather, Disney seeks to maximize profits and avoid risk by strategically deploying ambiguity in the representations it creates of Latinidad. This representation often relies on tropes and universal narratives and conflates Latin Americans, the Spanish, and U.S. Latinxs. As a result, Disney is able to appeal to a mass demographic while at the same time showcasing cultural elements that appeal to niche audiences. The specificity and nuance of the Latinx experience is flattened into a fantastically universal narrative that allows Disney to extract the widest profit margin.

Reflecting on our panel and the thought-provoking question and answer session, I am left wondering how we move away from utilizing language and frameworks that center on diversity and representation. In other words, how do we shift the focus to issues of equity, accountability, and justice within a mediated system that systemically disenfranchises marginalized people? How do we move the field of Latinx media studies, along with studies of other minorities, from the margins of communication, film, and media studies and instead view it as central to understanding the ways in which power, whiteness, and inequality shape the media industries?

Image Credits
1. One Day at a Time