Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Core Post 5: Post-TV Tastes

In “Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web,” Tara McPherson asserts the need for a medium-specific phenomenology, and not just an ontology, of the Web: that is, beyond simply defining the Web as a medium, she is interested in “how the Web constitutes itself in the unfolding of experience” (201), in the ways it relates to and interacts with its users, and more specifically, the way it can “structure certain experiential modalities for the user [which can help to] situate that user within particular modes of subjectivity and within the networks of capital” (201). That is, the Web-browsing subject is of special interest to McPherson not just for the ways s/he is interpellated and constituted not only by the Web but by those social, historical, and economic realities that structure the Web itself. McPherson is also interested in the ways that a phenomenology of the Web might further help us understand the medium’s crucial differences from television. For example, while “liveness” is an important part of the experience of both television and the Web, McPherson notes that “the Web structures a sense of causality in relation to liveness, a liveness which we navigate and move through, often structuring a feeling that our own desire drives the movement” (emphasis mine, 202). It is movement, rather than presence, that constitutes the particular liveness of Web browsing. McPherson goes on to trace the multiple and overlapping temporalities/spatialities engendered by the Web, and the (illusion of) choice and autonomy we experience within these temporalities, designating this “volitional mobility.” She describes the “scan-and-search” as the Web’s version of flow, the economies of attention and information once again predicated on a basic sense of agency or activity (rather than passivity) that is so fundamental to our experience of the Web. Ultimately, however, the kinds of power that we perceive ourselves to have when we use the Web, according to McPherson, are enormously, if not inevitably, bound up with the same hegemonies that are at play in other, older media – the Web engages “the user’s desire along different registers [from television, malls and freeways, as Margaret Morse writes] which nonetheless still underwrite neo-Fordist feedback loops” (206). Corporate, capitalist interests still loom large, even if they have gotten better at hiding themselves.

To refer back to my emphasis above, the reference to the importance of feeling like one’s own desire translates directly into action calls to mind, for me, the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, outlines the ways in which ‘personal taste’ – in things as innocuous as food, travel, sport – is never quite as personal or autonomously construed as we would like to imagine it to be, but is instead always embedded within a set of social, cultural, and economic expectations, assumptions, and aspirations. In discussing art, for example, he writes, “any legitimate work tends in fact to impose the norms of its own perception and tacitly defines as the only legitimate mode of perception the one which brings into play a certain disposition and a certain competence” (Bourdieu 28). He then notes: “the apprehension and appreciation of the work also depend on the beholder’s intention, which is itself a function of the conventional norms governing the relation to the work…in a certain historical and social situation and also of the beholder’s capacity to conform to those norms” (Bourdieu 30). When we move through the spaces of the Web, particularly those which more explicitly share something with the experiences of art – streaming television, to be sure, but also social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr which allow users to curate, construct, display, and critique their own work and others’ – the notion of ‘taste’ and ‘distinction’ between better and worse, more or less legitimate content is profoundly informed by social class and other subject positions. In considering a phenomenology of the Web as we experience it in 2016, and particularly for a generation for whom identity is so profoundly wrapped up in the construction of Internet personae, I think McPherson’s phenomenology of the Web raises interesting questions about why we like the things we Like.

9 comments:

  1. Interesting point, Emma! Taste is such a finicky, difficult thing to discuss theoretically (especially that ever elusive construct: "quality"), but I agree that the Web is an especially rewarding space to attempt a study of taste. In particular, the organization of taste along lines of identity--of particular populations of users--is telling. That there is a specific aesthetic for Pinterest users that is recognizably different from the aesthetics of Tumblr, 4chan, or Etsy users, is perhaps a fascinating manifestation of Bourdieu's theory. Of course, the question of what counts as art in such webspaces is both a similar, and deeply related, problem.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Danielle! I agree that 'quality' is at its most transparently elusive when it comes to Web content, since the things we might typically associate with 'quality' -- durability, a kind of belabored materiality -- are necessarily absent or invisible in virtual media. I think your point about the way different aesthetics dominate different corners of the internet is really important as well, and I think that the very distinct cultural associations many people have with the 'types of people' using these platforms (whether or not they are true, and whether or not they are offensive or reductive, as they so often are) replicates and reifies existing structures of power and social divisions. In thinking through what counts as art on the internet, I was also reminded of a news story from a few years ago, discussed here: https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/richard-prince-audrey-wollen-and-the-sad-girl-theory. Artist Audrey Wollen (Peter Wollen's daughter!) became central to a small art-world scandal after speaking out against Richard Prince's use of her images on Instagram (as well as those of a number of other young women) in his own art show at Gagosian Gallery. Wollen's own work was already concerned with replicating or responding to classical art forms (for example, by inserting her own body into classical nude portraiture by the 'masters'), and the incident sparked a lively debate about what counts as art when it's being posted on a social media platform, where ownership begins and ends, and the ways that online activity, once it's recognized as art, still privileges a very small group (mostly white, mostly male, mostly straight, mostly cis).

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  2. Great post, Emma. Thank you! I absolutely agree with what you said. New media comes from a circle where it is not only a result, but also a determinant of cultural and social trajectories. personal tastes are culturally and socially guided, and there is no way one could be detached from the environment in which s/he is inserted. And I also believe our capability for critical thinking is constructed the same way, which of course can be both positive and negative. I have been following the impeachment debates in Brazil through Facebook, and it seems that instead of writing their own ideas, people just share what has been already said by someone else. I'm not abstaining myself from this tendency (I have been doing the same), but it felt like a good illustration for what you described above.

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  3. I wonder to what extent taste today is partially dictated by things that are akin to internet peer pressure. For example, for many people, their only interaction with film criticism is Rotten Tomatoes, which reduces critical conversation to a number. To what extent are we (the greater viewing public, not we as film students) primed to like a film with a high RT score and vice versa? Have aggregation sites created a heightened echo chamber of opinion?

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  4. This question of the Internet as a schitzfrenetic experience kind of excites me and I like this day that the literal, visual boundaries of taste are divided. One could only go to one film on any given night, or a certain museum. Television, one could say, began to change this, because one can flip back and forth between the most culturally beloved objects and "trash" TV. On the Internet, you can have your Buzzfeed quiz on one edge of the screen while watching 60s art cinema in another, meaning distinction as a physical idea breaks down ever further.

    Except.

    As you point out Emma, we end up curating and thus limiting our tastes and turning off the rest ("Nobody I knew voted for Nixon" as a statement of personal curation). The question of what determines thus becomes more curios, and as you note, might be inherent in who has access to this technology and how it ends up being used.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Peter! I think the idea of 'publicness' with regards to taste is super important when it comes to Web browsing. When Bourdieu talks about taste, he is describing a very specific historic moment - early 1980s France, when television sets in middle-class homes were actually still relatively new (compared to the US) and the vast majority of cultural capital was to be consumed in public - going to see art/theatre/cinema, eating (again, restaurants are a much larger part of daily life in France than they are here), etc. Online, is taste less inherently performative? I can swear up and down to the people I know in real life that I hate BuzzFeed and take as many quizzes as I want to in private (even if I know that Google and Facebook are still watching me). I agree that we curate (and in many ways limit) our tastes and our options online, but I wonder whether the performativities associated with taste are indeed fundamentally different when it comes to the internet.

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  5. I like the way you bring up McPherson’s idea of the web constituting “itself in the unfolding of experience” (201). I find her characterization of the Web as a technology of experience to be a useful way of thinking about mass media technology in general. I am wondering, however, if the same argument could not be made about other technologies. There is a way of thinking about technology as it manifests itself in physical objects (the computer, the cellphone, the car) and the experience of that technology (the iMac, the iPhone, the Porsche) in which case the specific brand of that technology is treated as advanced technology itself, which of course, is accessible only via pre-existing channels of power and taste. The Web is a much more complicated object since the Web in itself is not branded, but is populated by brands. So when we are talking about the experience of taste, are we talking of a phenomenology of the symbolic exchanges that take place within the network, or the phenomenology of the network itself? I love your subtle use of the upper-case “L” in Like, and that actually helps illustrate my point. Let’s say I “Like” a post on Facebook, am I imbricated in the structures of taste that are constituted by what that post represents, or is my “Like” something that constitutes my experience of the Web?

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  6. I def. agree that the notion of 'taste' is determined by distinct cultural and social circumstances, whether its gender, race, class, age, sexuality, etc. But I feel as though social media sites like tumblr are becoming so commonplace amongst the youth. Tumblr has the ability to offer cultural capital to those, for instance, who are underprivileged (youth). Those who wouldn't normally have access to viewing certain things irl (whether its high fashion clothes, films, music, or academic text posts/articles) have a space to be aware, learn, reblog, and construct an 'aesthetic' or 'taste' that promotes social mobility.

    (Btw thanks for linking the Audrey Wollen/sad girl theory article in your comment, it was a really interesting read.)

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    1. Christal, I also agree with this point that while "the notion of ‘taste’ and ‘distinction’ between better and worse, more or less legitimate content is profoundly informed by social class and other subject positions" (as Emma states), the intersection of taste and the Internet has demonstrated potential to upend typical hierarchies of distinction and privilege and open up spaces for agency and mobility. Tumblr and Pinterest are two platforms that come to mind most quickly as communities where taste is leveled, as Christal mentions, above "IRL economic and social capital." A user's curatorial skills can extend from cinema, literature, and fashion photography to fanfiction, fan art, GIFs, and memes all within the same profile page. Tastemakers can choose to be omnivorous or incredibly specific; followers engage on a basis of shared interest and trust. Which is not to say that taste isn't embedded or that it doesn't have consequences or implications for identity politics. I think curatorial Web mediums must certainly reflect existing hegemonies but they also allow for consumers to powerfully engage, repurpose, and redistribute content.

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