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.