What Color Is Your Scholarship?

A friend of mine has been testing out a major technology company’s new e-book, a sleek little package that aims to reinvent the ways in which we read. It’s not the first sexy, silver object of its kind, but it hopes to be a successful one. Several earlier pioneers have pretty soundly failed, crippled by a lack of available content, by technological snafus and copyright issues, and by an ongoing fondness for that ‘old’ technology, the book. After all, the book works pretty well. It’s an interface we’ve naturalized and grown very comfortable with. As folks are wont to point out, it’s easy to take to bed or bath, it never needs a power source, and it almost never crashes. And, like many other academics, I like the very materiality of my books: their smells, their inscriptions, their covers (especially those from Duke Press.)

But I have to admit to being seduced by the promise and idea of the digital book, particularly its portability and its usability. Every time I find myself lugging forty pounds of books along while on vacation or visiting an archive, I realize I’d give up the physical pleasures of ‘book-ness’ for easy mobility. Sure, I might have to forego reading in the tub or in bright sunlight, but there are gains to be had here, even beyond portability. I’ve become so accustomed to working with digital documents that I find myself stymied by the inadequate indexes of many books I read. I want to search the print book of my own accord and have it capitulate to my desires the way the reams of digital data on my desktop appear to obey my epistemophilic desires. Sometimes I want to read a book cover to cover, in full savor mode, but, increasingly, I want to cut, paste, and remix them.

the Sony LIBRIe

the Sony LIBRIe

Honestly, I guess my TiVo is partially to blame. I can’t remember the last time I watched live TV. Even during the media circus that followed the devastation of Katrina, I had my TiVo working overtime, taping hours of coverage I’d peruse later, while I logged time at my keyboard searching interactive maps (courtesy of Google mash-ups), video snippets, and blog feeds. In her now-canonical essay on television’s temporality circa 1988, Mary Anne Doane argued that information on TV “inhabits a moment of time and is then lost to memory. Television thrives on its own forgettability.” Of course, Doane wrote just as the simultaneous double whammy of the cable explosion and VCR time-shifting began to take full hold. We might read our current investments in DVRs and 500 gig hard drives as our attempt to stave off television’s insistence that we immediately forget. Today, memory is cheap.

My desktop now sports a new folder labeled “Katrina clips,” a small, DYI database of moments I want to remember, culled both from the internet and my own TiVo hard drive. These clips share memory with talks and articles I’ve written about Katrina, with emails I’ve saved from families and friends along the Gulf, and with various news stories and blog postings I’ve catalogued for future reference. While Katrina and its aftermath provoked this particular deployment of memory, the hundreds of folders on my PC catalogue more banal aspects of daily life, from family photos to tax receipts. I move this data about at will, mixing media and matching files, orchestrating new collisions of space and time.

It’s a feeling of control that impacts my interactions with both word and image, returning me to my opening thoughts about e-books. In less than 20 years (I got my first PC and VCR in 1987, shiny new tools for starting grad school), I guess I’ve succumbed pretty fully to the lure of information machines and the control they seem to promise. No matter that this control is more ideology than ontology, to repurpose Jane Feuer’s prescient analysis of television. As fond as I am of my many, many books, I feel primed for new modes of reading and of writing, for information mixes that might open up new ways of knowing and of feeling, new circuits of exchange. New media artists have been pushing the boundaries of digital expression for at least a decade, and the electronic literature crowd has an even longer track record of pushing the boundaries of linear narrative. Still, the scholarly crowd has been slow to respond. Even those of us who study electronic media for a living still largely write and publish the ‘old-fashioned’ way even as academic presses struggle to stay afloat. What might electronic scholarship (rather than scholarship about the electronic) look like?

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Flow already begins to point the way. It closes the feedback loop between publication and reply, between academic call and response, by knitting the ‘comments’ function integrally into each article it publishes. Other online publications like the Electronic Book Review , Kairos , and the now-defunct Horizon Zero have also explored how multimedia or networked scholarship might take shape. The Labyrinth Project at USC pushes even further, exploring the power of cinematic language for the database documentary and public scholarship. Vectors , a new electronic scholarly journal, only publishes pieces that can’t exist in print. (In the interest of full disclosure, I edit the last one.)

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Such experiments aim to explore modes of scholarship more fully responsive to the remix possibilities of digital culture and to the visual cultures of film, TV, and the everyday. One goal of Vectors is to investigate the potential of the different affective and sensory registers of scholarship. Can scholarship look and feel differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user. What happens to argument when scholarship goes fully networked and multimedia? How do you ‘experience’ argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space? Can you play an article? What color is your scholarship? While these questions may seem trivial or even alien to scholarship as we now know it, I, for one, am game to explore a world where the outputs of media studies participate more fully in the emergent forms and practices of the media we study and populate new devices. I’m not getting rid of my books just yet, but I wouldn’t mind putting Flow on my iPod.

Doane, Mary Anne, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1990).

Feuer, Jane. “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology and
Ideology,” in Regarding Television, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles, CA.: AFI, 1983).

Image Credits:

1. the Sony LIBRIe

2. Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

3. Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Please feel free to comment.

Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South, and The Nation

A little over a year ago, following the heartbreaking outcome of the 2004 presidential election, those of us on the left coast were feeling pretty smug about our difference from Bush country, and, in particular, the South. Buying into the us/them logic of network media coverage, Californians took some perverse comfort in feeling blue. The maps circulating on television and in newspapers fixed state boundaries in inviolate shades of red and blue. If we Angelenos were disappointed in the election results, we could at least feel confident that our state had been true blue.

red vs. blue election map

A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004. The solid sea of red does powerful ideological work.

Of course, a more careful analysis of this red-blue binary revealed its limits. Much less-publicized maps appeared on the internet, including maps that analyzed the country by county and by population, revealing as much red in California as in Georgia. But the dominant red/blue logic largely held sway, in part prompted by the simplistic visual field of network news, a signifying economy more than willing to trade in easy-to-read, lowest-denominator graphics. Furthermore, the ease with which this logic took hold across the country (and across party lines) had everything to do with much older cultural narratives that relentlessly fix the South into precise roles in the national imaginary. The United States has long had a bipolar fixation on all things southern, alternately figuring the region as the hotbed of family values and lost grandeur or as the locus of American shame, poverty, and trauma.

election map by county

An election map broken down into county by county results. This detailed analysis reveals the limits of a red vs. blue analysis.

The recent coverage of the Katrina disaster largely runs along these well-worn grooves of national memory and amnesia. Soon after (and even before) word of the New Orleans’ levee break circulated, national news programs began offering up maps and images of the historic city, speculating on the damage to the French Quarter and other tourist areas. The nation appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed that these “historic landmarks” had been spared a watery fate. President Bush even felt free to wax nostalgic about his youthful partying on Bourbon Street, asserting that the South would rise again. Folks seemed more concerned about the fate of Preservation Hall, filled as it is with iconic images of a (now) nostalgic, former blackness, than with the Black bodies trapped in rapidly rising water, losing life as time ran out for rescues.

The packaged images of historic New Orleans — so tied up in blackness of another era — operated as a kind of disavowal for the racism that elsewhere was writ large across our screens (and, of course, our social and economic policies.) The images of African Americans “looting” or, alternately, as bereft, tragic, and displaced, should have knocked roughly against the more sentimental portraits of New Orleans’ history as an “unique American melting pot,” but these contradictory images are familiar from many years of southern representation. We are all too capable of holding them in separate frames through the fragmentary, if not binary, logics supported by electronic media, partitioned logics that neatly dovetail with our modes of representing the South.

Typical prejudice in Katrina coverage

A typical image from the Katrina coverage. These representations of tragic blackness (or, alternately, of “looting,” chaotic blackness) have long histories in American visual cultural, particularly when imaging the South. In a southern context, they work to locate American racism “elsewhere.”

This national schizophrenia about the South is possible precisely because America has refused to come to terms with our racial and racist pasts, cordoning them off as a kind of regional problem always located elsewhere. Such a partitioned mode of thinking characterizes post-World War II, post-Civil Rights discourse, proliferating binaries of rural/urban, red/blue, white/black, and us/them. It allows us to forget that the disaster in New Orleans and along the Gulf was possible precisely because the nation has abandoned its domestic infrastructure, neglected the poor, and failed to realize the hopes and possibilities of the Civil Rights era (not to mention the Emancipation era.) This failure affects the South and also the nation. As I watched, spellbound by television as portions of my home state flowed into the Gulf, I knew that, despite the red/blue binary, the problems of New Orleans are also the problems of Los Angeles. Those detailed election maps remind us that our voting patterns aren’t that different either.

During the past several weeks, alternative scripts have sometimes surfaced, particularly given the media’s imperative to give us chaos coverage 24/7. Local reports here in LA noted that many displaced African Americans headed west to Los Angeles to reunite with family members, inadvertently highlighting the diasporic patterns of southern blacks across the history of 20th-century America. Of course, coverage of natural disasters (or of urban rebellions) hits close to home for Californians, living as we do on multiple fault lines, both real and imagined. Various local media streams came close to sketching the possibility of sameness or reunion in imagining La. and LA as somehow similar, even if these images were largely fleeting ones. Nonetheless, I take these as hopeful signs, a kind of implicit recognition that regions travel in unexpected ways and that commonality might be found in the least predictable of places. It’s a mapping I vastly prefer to last year’s red and blue one. Still, we’ll be hard pressed to gain from these moments of possible union if we continue to repress the knowledge that the South is dispersed across the nation and that its racial histories overdetermine every aspect of this American life.

See Also:
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”
Tara McPherson — “Re-Imagining the Red States”

Image Credits:

1. A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004

2. An election map broken down into county by county results

3. A typical image from the Katrina coverage

Please feel free to comment.

Transform Me, Please…

by: Tara McPherson / University of Southern California

After Botox

Discovery website – After Botox

I’m feeling my age these days. My toddler’s been wrestling with a cold for weeks, setting off a seemingly endless cycle of sick boy, sick dad, sick mom, as we tag team viruses with the 20+ other wee ones in our preschool set. And the semester’s just kicked in, amping daily life up to full-frantic pace, with seminar prep, admission cycles, budget planning (a perk of life as division chair), and another turn on the committees-of-the-week ride. And then there’s the email. Always the email. Ironically, I’m teaching a grad course this spring on fashion, beauty, and media culture. Can’t say I’m feeling all that expert on such topics right now. I’m lucky to shower these days.

So, I have to confess that the chance to ‘look ten years younger’ in ten days has its appeal. That’s the promise hawked by one of the seemingly countless ‘makeover’ shows dotting the televisual landscape today, the appropriately-titled 10 Years Younger on TLC. Avoiding the nip + tuck techniques of The Swan or other surgically-enhanced shows, this kinder, gentler series promises a non-invasive path to a renewed and youthful self.

But, just as I’m getting lured in, ready to submit my own application online, something (besides standing in mid L.A. in a big glass box while passing strangers guess my age) gives me pause. I already work a lot, with my job bleeding into domestic space via email, phone line, and fax. Even my TV watching is pretty much always tied to work, particularly this past fall while I was serving as a juror for the AFI television awards. While life in the university has probably always made separating work and play difficult, the technological landscape of post-fordism makes the blur feel complete. I’m going to resist the TV’s siren call to add working on myself to the equation and instead ponder why transformation has become such a powerful media lure today.

Of course, the promise of transformation via the commodity is not strictly a 21st century phenomenon. Media culture has been tightly tied to beauty culture since the birth of advertising, and it’s hard to think the history of Hollywood without recognizing the role the silver screen played in perpetuating precise ideas of glamour and fashion. Certainly, the proliferation of screens across the late 20th century – from televisions to computers to new mobile devices – participates in and extends these legacies and logics.

Vanessa Before and After on 10 Years Younger

Vanessa before and after on 10 Years Younger

But today’s makeovers are different too, and these differences matter. As Heather Hendershot recently noted in an article for Flow, today’s promises of transformation frequently penetrate the body, sculpting flesh and figuring it as increasingly mutable, changeable, and porous. The ‘transformations’ featured on shows ranging from Extreme Makeover to Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills (and on their attendant websites) highlight malleability to a new degree. Sure, specific products – from Botox to DaVinci veneers – are featured and made familiar. But this is about more than just selling procedures and pharmaceuticals.

Bodies become one with the bitstream, as easily morphed as a Photoshop file. Beauty is no longer a surface phenomenon, with the exterior reworked to match a ‘beautiful’ interior through a careful consumption of products. The inside and outside now collapse and blur, all up for reconfiguring and all requiring hard work. Thus the focus on many of these series on process itself; while the ‘reveal’ is still important, the shows narrate the labor involved in transformation in a manner quite different from earlier makeover tales. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ are still key, but the in-between expands.

New technologies of vision help underwrite the collapse of inside and out, making visible the interior of the body in new ways, but such a collapse is not just the effect of new representations on the surface of our screens. Rather, the very forms of electronic culture (and, especially, of digital culture) help naturalize this process, shifting our understandings of what constitutes the self and working in tight feedback loops with shifting modes of economic production and emergent media ecologies.

Various theorists and economists have noted a shift in the workings of capital, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating through the past several decades, a shift marked by a turn from factory production models toward an information economy. Western economies have moved toward flexible patterns of production, economies of scope (small batch production of a wide variety of products), service and knowledge industries in which computerization figures as a major development, and a new priority on consumption that targets highly differentiated niche markets.

A key factor in this shift to post-fordism is the emergence of data processing in which workers and machines are figured as equal relays in electronic circuits of information. Computers, moreover, contribute to a temporal and spatial decentralization of work that involves the overflow of labor beyond the eight-hour day or the confines of the office. There’s a space-time compression in which the boundaries between labor and leisure, work and home, bleed together. The internet in many ways crystallizes this shift, making it manifest, as work follows us home and shopping follows us to work.

Swan Logo

The Swan logo

The recent explosion in transformation TV situates television firmly within electronic culture, narrating recombination across our very bodies and homes, underwriting a continuum that runs from the extreme surgery shows to the seemingly tamer worlds of What Not To Wear and Trading Spaces. Electronic forms are complexly situated within the workings of capital. Thus, the bleed between product and information, between work and leisure, between old and new bodies can be seen as skilling us for the new modes of living demanded by post-fordist economies, modes that require a new relationship to our very corporeal selves.

But, if electronic culture is teaching us volumes about transforming selves, perhaps it is also teaching us something about other modes of change and transformation, pushing electronic culture into spaces of hope and possibility. Can we push this logic further, envisioning new recombinatory modes of living or even new labor movements? If electronic culture insists that everything is malleable, why stop with the self? Why not transform the very structures of capital? Just thinking about it makes me feel ten years younger.

Further Reading
Alliez, Eric, and Michel Feher. “The Luster of Capital.” Zone, no. 1/2 (1987): 314-59.

Recent Flow Articles of Interest
Heather Hendershot, “The Boob Tube”

10 Years Younger
Extreme Makeover
The Swan
Trading Spaces
What Not To Wear

Image credits:

1. Botox injection image: The Discovery website offers details on Botox

2. Two images of same woman: Vanessa’s before and after on 10 Years Younger

3. The Swan logo

Please feel free to comment.