Calling adults childish (an ongoing series)

Felix Salmon, Netflix’s dumbed-down algorithms:

Television stations learned many years ago the difference between maximizing perceived quality, on the one hand, and maximizing hours spent watching, on the other. Netflix has long since started making the same distinction: it wants to serve up a constant stream of content for you to be able to watch in vast quantities, rather than sending individual precious DVDs where you will be very disappointed if they fall below your expectations. Netflix’s biggest fans tend to be parents of young kids — but in a sense, Netflix wants to turn us all into young kids, consuming an endless stream of minimally-differentiated material. (Note that Netflix doesn’t allow you to watch a trailer for a movie before streaming it; it just expects you to stop watching that movie, and start watching something else, if you don’t like it.)

(context)

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Amendments to OUP contracts for handbooks and edited volumes

In the interest of sharing practical information, here are some notes on my  experiences over the last several years getting changes to the language in contracts for individual chapters in edited volumes from Oxford University Press. I have two pieces in Oxford Handbooks, for which I had similar objections to the contracts Jonathan Sterne discusses here, in particular that the agreements were “work for hire” rather than simple copyright transfer (see here for a good explanation of the difference). Like Sterne I was able to get them to add this language:

Notwithstanding the foregoing and subject to the Publisher’s prior written approval, provided that full acknowledgment of the Volume (including bibliographic details) is given and that such use does not affect prejudicially the sales or other exploitation by the Publisher of the Volume, the Contributor may rework some (but not the whole or a substantial part) of his or her contribution to the Volume as the basis for articles in professional journals, conference papers, training materials, newsletters and similar materials, as well as for chapters in books by the Contributor.

I’m not sure that really helps much, but I also was assured by email that this paragraph allowed me to include the chapter in my dissertation (something I specifically requested). In fact I find assurances outside of the contract itself to be pretty frustrating, since the standard contracts always include a clause that says something like “This Agreement sets forth the entire agreement between the parties regarding its subject matter and supersedes and replaces all prior discussions, arrangements, and agreements (whether written or oral) relating thereto.” Which has the effect of disavowing any email assurances!

In addition I was able to have the following clause added, which more or less replicates “moral rights” (or the author’s right to be identified):

It is hereby acknowledged and agreed that such likeness and biographical information shall be subject to the Contributor’s approval, such approval not to be unreasonably conditioned, withheld or delayed. It is further acknowledged and agreed that the Contribution shall be attributed to the Contributor in each instance.

One of the differences between work-for-hire and copyright transfer is that in the latter it is possible to claw back the copyright after 35 years, as I understand it. At that time horizon, who knows what will happen to these materials. You could easily imagine them being sold or repurposed or severely altered somehow, so it is nice to at least have a commitment that my authorship will always be identified.

I was also told that I was one of only two people out of 500 to question the wording of the Handbook agreements in music, and the only one to express concern over “work for hire.” If this is true it’s too bad (though Sterne also reports expressing concerns about work-for-hire, so there must have been at least two of us). But it does indicate that publishers aren’t getting much in the way of push-back from authors on their standard contracts, so the takeaway is that more people should ask for better contracts.

By contrast, I recently negotiated another contract for a chapter in an edited volume, through Oxford’s UK rather than New York offices, and I had a much easier time getting satisfactory changes made. The standard contract used normal copyright transfer rather than work-for-hire. I needed an up front commitment to be able to use the complete chapter in a future book. I was able to get the following added in an addendum:

3 Copyright and Permissions
3.1 The Contributor may reuse the following without obtaining permission:

• up to 10% of the Work providing that this does not exceed 1,000 contiguous words and up to 3 figures or tables.

3.2 The Contributor may:
• Post the Work on a personal website or in an institutional repository;
• Include the Work in derivative works, including extension of the Work into a book-length work;
• Reproduce the Work within coursepacks or e-coursepacks for teaching purposes, with the proviso that the coursepacks are not sold for more than the cost of reproduction;
• Include the Work within a thesis or dissertation.

3.3 Permission is granted on the following conditions:
• that the material reused is  own work and has already been published by OUP;
• and that the intended reuse of the Work is for scholarly, non-commercial purposes;
• and that full acknowledgement is made of the original OUP publication;
• and that reuse on personal websites and institutional repositories includes a link to the OUP website.
Clause 7.6 of Schedule II of this agreement is hereby revoked.

(Clause 7.6 reads “This Agreement sets forth the entire agreement between the parties regarding the subject matter hereof and supersedes and revokes all prior discussions, arrangements and agreements written or oral relating thereto.”)

In my view this is excellent. It covers basically everything I really want from a contract, and it was easy to achieve after a bit of back and forth and clarification. And it is much better than what I could get from the Oxford Handbook contracts. This may be a difference between UK and New York, or just that the Handbooks are using a different model. But I thought I should put it out there to let other people know what can be negotiated.

Pitt Childhood Studies Speaker Series: Allison Pugh, Wednesday, April 2, 4:30pm, 324 Cathedral of Learning

On April 2 the Pitt Childhood Studies Speaker Series is hosting a talk by the sociologist Allison Pugh, titled “The Theoretical Costs of Ignoring Childhood: What Children Have to Tell Us About Inequality, Independence, and Insecurity.” I’ll be giving a brief response, along with Dr. Melissa Swauger (Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Sociology). It promises to be an interesting event. If you are in the Pittsburgh area please join us!

April 2, 4:30–5:45pm, 324 Cathedral of Learning.

New chapter on Justin Bieber, tween prodigy, and childhood in new media

As part of a larger project about the tween music industry, I have a chapter coming out in a volume on child musical prodigies from OUP about Justin Bieber. A pdf preprint is here.

“Justin Bieber, YouTube, and New Media Celebrity: The Tween Prodigy at Home and Online,” forthcoming in Musical Prodigies: Interpretations from Psychology, Musicology and Ethnomusicology, edited by Gary McPherson, Oxford University Press.

This chapter examines the cultural values of childhood and commerce that inform tween popular music star Justin Bieber’s portrayal as a musical prodigy, focusing on the 2011 concert film Never Say Never. While children’s active participation in popular culture conflicts with social norms emphasizing children’s place in the home, this chapter argues that forms of “new media”—especially home videos that both Bieber and his fans share on sites like YouTube—help to resolve those conflicts, by contextualizing popular music performance in the everyday spaces of childhood family life. The chapter explores themes of family and childhood domesticity, gender and the intersections between childhood and girlhood culture, disconnects between musical ability and commercial success, and the relationship between musical prodigies and child stars.

Ethnomusicology and empiricism (again)

I’ve written about this before, and I suppose this may just be a hobby-horse of mine, and may not matter as much as I think it does, but I notice that the Winter 2012 issue of Ethnomusicology had another “Call and Response” section on experimental methods in which contributors use the term “empiricism” as though it were something other than the normal work of ethnomusicologists. (Academic time is slow, so I’m posting this a year late.) I think it’s important to work to combat this trend. “Empiricism” is something that all (or very very many) ethnomusicologists can and do claim proudly, and I think it’s too bad that the journal is repeatedly reinforcing the idea that the work most of us do is not empirical. We can have conversations about bridging a divide with more scientific disciplines without having to redefine how we’ve long used this term. A couple examples:

  • Lawson contrasts “both ethnomusicology and empirically-based research” (87), “humanists and empiricists” (87) (where it appears that most of us are supposed to be humanists and therefore not empiricists), and “empirically, historically, and ethnographically-derived data” (93) (suggesting that ethnographic fieldwork is not empirical).
  • Zbikowski contrasts “ethnomusicology and the empirical sciences” and “empirical and humanistic methodologies” (125), suggesting that ethnomusicology is not an empirical discipline, and that ethnomusicology instead uses humantistic methodologies.

My graduate training emphasized repeatedly the central importance of fieldwork to our discipline, with the founding story of 20th century anthropology involving a rejection of armchair theorizing in favor of ethnographic fieldwork. That contrast is only meaningful if the task fieldwork accomplishes is to emphasize the rigorous collection of facts over interpretations not grounded in facts (or interpretations of travelogue-style facts whose collection made no efforts at rigor). The whole big methodological idée fixe that we all have beaten into us is that ethnographic fieldwork matters precisely because it is empirical. But in Lawson’s formulation, it seems that “empirical” and “ethnographic” are two different things, which would seem to lump ethnographic fieldwork in with armchair theory as humanistic and non-empirical, and write over more than a century of debate within the human sciences about what methodological rigor should be. I do understand that there’s a meaning of “empirical” that means “experimental,” but it’s not the wider meaning, and it’s certainly not the meaning that most ethnomusicologists I know intend.

I will admit that I may be biased here, but I cringe when Lawson frames this under the theme of “consilience,” an idea that, at least as E.O. Wilson expresses it, I find to be off-putting at best, and usually repugnant (not least because of the idea that to be a humanists is to be categorically not an empiricist, and so “scientists” will come in and show us how to deal with data), and I think we should be extremely wary of offering the sciences a colonizing foothold in our territory. What’s more, humanistic critiques of the sciences are very often made precisely on empirical grounds: whether of evolutionary psychology, neoclassical economics, linguistics, or developmental psychology, the critiques I am familiar with are premised on the idea that presumptively scientific models presuppose empirical claims that are either unavailable or conveniently ignored. (Statistics, of course, are wonderful, and I share Becker’s wish, related by Harwood, to have had some training in those procedures.)

It’s just not at all fair to claim “empiricism” for a group of people that excludes ethnomusicologists. And despite my strong views on the substance of this question of consilience, I think we can bracket that controversy off from this smaller, and hopefully less contentious, question about the term “empiricism,” precisely in the interest of making a possible space for respectful exchanges about the potential for accord with the sciences.

So a general request: Would it be possible, please, to refrain from using “empirical” as though it excludes most of what ethnomusicologists do, at least (at least!) in the pages of our flagship journal?

Because whatever ethnomusicology has been historically, it has always been empirical. What starts to be at least a little offensive in these repeated Call and Response sections is the implication that the non-experimental work that most of us do is not empirical, and rather is “just” humanistic, or somehow lacks rigorous methodological tools for dealing with facts. I am confident that no offense is intended, but the journal keeps taking this term that we all use and that we value immensely, and redefining it to mean something that excludes us. That’s pretty rough.

Parenting, work, and values

tl;dr: read this, this, this and this in combination with this

Recently New York Magazine published a long piece about what it identifies as a trend of wealthy women who identify as feminists choosing not to work and instead to care for their children full-time. I’ve had a version this post sitting in my drafts folder since last spring, when some of these same issues popped up partly in response to the publication of Elisabeth Badinter’s book The Conflict. I chose not to post it then mostly because, for good reason, it’s all so contentious. Maybe I’m less risk averse now. (Also for some reason I thought a good title would be “attachment parenting is a consumer good,” which is true, but man that’s a stupid thing to call a post about parenting on this internet.)

Katha Pollitt (who is right about everything), wrote a very good column in the Nation last May about “attachment parenting,” responding to a sensationalist piece in Time about the “mommy wars.” (I won’t link since it’s the worst sort of trolling link bait.) Pollitt’s point is similar to the one I was trying to make in response to Sherry Turkle, that most commentary about parenting and concern for children is really about disciplining adults—disciplining women—and that holds true for a certain version of attachment parenting.

So I’m on record as thinking that claims that childrearing is a fundamental value are mostly just mechanisms for controlling women. But I do think we need a more complicated critique of things like attachment parenting that hopefully doesn’t require us to only value public activities and devalue private ones.

I want to highlight this point from Pollitt:

Badinter blames intensive mothering for distorting feminism and pulling women back into the home. But one could also say it’s a socially approved way of withdrawing from a workplace that, in addition to all the usual sorrows and pains, has been sexist in general and hostile to mothers in particular, and of resolving the frustrations of the double day — women’s greater domestic burden. (These are also features of French life, despite France’s excellent daycare system.) America is famously unfriendly to mothers — no paid parental leave, a lack of affordable daycare, patchy after-school, long workdays, little vacation. Even legally mandated paid sick days are controversial. Individual mothers manage to negotiate these shoals — after all, most mothers are employed — but overall, lack of social supports is America’s way of telling them they don’t really belong at work. Their real job is at home.

I think the bolded part is pretty tremendously insightful, and I want to push on it point a bit, and also to question the implication that the specific reason to bemoan this state of things is that having a job is good in itself. Certainly we live in a society in which work is the primary source of social value, and there are very good reasons for valuing women’s participation there and for being strongly skeptical of attempts to encourage or really even legitimate a retreat to the private sphere that looks strongly like a retrenchment of gender hierarchies. (Pollitt: “As long as women’s primary focus is domestic, men will run the world and make the rules.” True story.)

But I also don’t think we can say enough that jobs suck. With a very small number of exceptions, jobs are alienating, humiliating, boring, stressful, time-consuming, unproductive, wasteful, physically and psychologically debilitating, exhausting, joyless, and terrible. Caring for children also sucks (because caring for children is work, and jobs suck), and it’s intensely wrong for folks like Turkle or attachment-parenting guru William Sears to tell women that their child’s well-being demands their complete sacrifice of time, attention, ambition, and individuality. I think maybe it’s also wrong to tell people they must have personal ambitions involving wage labor. Childcare sucks. Work sucks. We should revise our values around both of these things.

I think the issue is similar to a point David Graeber makes (Harper’s paywall; full text; full text pdf) when he compares enlisting in the army to getting involved in campus-based left activism: both decisions are about sidestepping the unfulfilling world of wage labor in favor of work that expresses one’s values. And both decisions are pretty easy to criticize as themselves alienated—I wouldn’t say that actively participating in US military hegemony is a great way to express one’s values, though I think I understand and respect the sense of solidarity and commitment to a (nationalist) community that such a choice expresses:

As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.

This is how things like attachment parenting make sense to me, as an expression of noble purpose, purchased by relatively wealthy people the same way they purchase things like health care and education for loved ones. What’s being purchased is time away from work, and time focused on what they understand to be of much higher value: their children and families. Graeber again:

What is really at stake here in any market economy is precisely the ability to make these trades, to convert “value” into “values.” All of us are striving to put ourselves in a position in which we can dedicate ourselves to something larger than ourselves.

I agree with Pollitt and Badinter that these parenting ideologies can be a real problem. But I also think that what we want is a world in which any person is free to reject wage labor, and I think that we want a world where care of any sort (for children, for the elderly, for other dependents, for oneself) is valued. We can and should be critical of the particular formulation of this value placed on the family (again, reproductive futurism is no good, or rather, it is all bad), but I don’t think it’s right to say that acting on the value of intimate relationships over commodified relationships is necessarily bad. Rather, what I’d say we want is a world in which many more people are free to bypass wage labor and pursue the activities and relationships they value (and, of course, hopefully, for those values to themselves be valuable, where intimate relationships are but the gender hierarchies they presuppose are not). Similarly, here’s Peter Frase on hipsters and privilege:

The false (but not without a grain of truth!) intimation that hipsters are all white kids who are subsidized by their rich parents legitimizes this position, but even if it were accurate it wouldn’t make the attitude of contempt any more sensible. For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.

That is, dropping out of the workforce in order to be able to spend time with people you love (or do any number of other things you might actually value and want to do) really is kind of the goal, and I think we’re missing something if we don’t recognize that this is part of what’s happening with things like attachment parenting.

I don’t think that’s quite the same as the simple anti-politics of “choice feminism.” I’m interested in something more akin to the politics outlined in this amazing essay about work and disability by Sunny Taylor. Taylor argues that disability activism has implications for many more people than those normally identified as disabled, partly because we will almost all be impaired at some point in our lives by illness or old age, but also because it entails fights for things like the right for everyone not to work:

Western culture has a very limited idea of what being useful to society is. People can be useful in ways other than monetarily. . . . The same rule that often excludes the impaired from the traditional workplace also exploits the able-bodied who have no other choice but to participate. The right not to work is an ideal worthy of the impaired and able-bodied alike.

Valuing work too highly necessarily devalues care and intimacy and dependence, and certainly doesn’t leave a lot of room for the value of people who are unable to work or excluded from work. Or what’s almost the same thing, valuing work too highly can place such priceless, infinite value on things like children and the family that they are all but value-less, so we get the reproductive futurism that we have, which is what leads to the current perversion in which actual care work is done for extremely low wages, or by mothers who are sacrificing significant earnings, social prestige, social insurance contributions, etc. One reason the parent-friendly policies Pollitt would like to see are missing in the States is precisely because work is over-valued here. The bizarre contradictions of a “family values” rhetoric that has no time for family-valuing policies like paid medical leave to care for dependents (like during the 2012 presidential campaign when Mitt Romney was simultaneously claiming the value of his wife’s role as a mother while arguing that a single parent’s focus on caring for their children denies them the dignity of work) make sense if fully distinguishing those spheres is the whole point of reactionary family values rhetoric.

This sort of parenting is interesting for how it involves many people who identify as liberal doing something that looks a lot like a more characterisitically right wing move—as Graeber puts it, it enhances the division between egoism and altruism (by enhancing the division between public and private), rather than trying to efface that division in the more traditional manner of the left. (See also Dana Goldstein on the contradiction of “progressive homeschooling.”) One response to that is just to say that these practices clearly aren’t recognizably liberal or left, and that’s right. But I think they are practices that can help expose or reveal where value is located in people’s lived experiences, and if I’m right to make these connections to Graeber and Frase and Taylor maybe that can also help reveal some intriguing points of odd commensurability between radical and reactionary cultural politics. Or something.

(For the record, the answer to all this is “wages for housework,” though as Federici argues, that’s not so much a policy solution as “the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint and ultimately for the entire working class.” So let’s do that.)

More digital dualism: we should stop talking about metaphysics and start talking about people

Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) has a post up at Cyborology continuing the “digital dualism” discussion, which is partially a response to my post from earlier this month. I started to post a comment in response but that got long fast, so I’m posting my response here. Boesel’s new post is great, and it addresses what I think are the core issues. (It’s also worth noting that it was originally Boesel whose writing on digital dualism got me started thinking about my disagreements with the anti-digital dualism position in the first place, and my earlier post would have been more appropriately framed as a response to her than the Nathan Jurgenson.)

Also Boesel says this is only the first of two or three posts on the subject, and clearly she will elaborate in later posts. But I think what’s here is already clarifying and helpful, so I’ll post this now and look forward to her additional thoughts as they come. (This post is going up obnoxiously quickly, as though I’ve been sitting around waiting to pounce. Ugh. In fact it is spring break at Columbia and I’m procrastinating working on a conference paper about Justin Bieber for PCA/ACA next week, so as I avoided editing clips out of Never Say Never, what should have been a short comment on Boesel’s post easily ballooned into this horrible thing, which I must now put online so that I have something to show for this morning.)

Boesel points to three binaries in circulation (atoms/bits, digital/physical, and online/offline) and argues that online/offline is the category to get rid of, while digital/physical and atoms/bits are problematic but useful:

augmented reality, as a theory, rejects all three of these dualisms: that it recognizes Online/Offline as a spurious distinction (and throws out both categories), and that it recognizes differences between atoms and bits (or between the physical and the digital) without conceptualizing either pair as a dualism or an oppositional binary.

Ironically, perhaps, I tend to think offline/online is actually the most useful of the proposed binaries, and it’s the others that are spurious and unhelpful (at least with regard to sociological questions). Categories like atoms/bits and digital/physical seem to me to have the most potential for slipping into ontological fundamentalism, whereas online/offline doesn’t explicitly refer to deep metaphysical questions and may usefully describe actual people’s lived experiences. That is, offline/online seems like an analytically fuzzy but pragmatically useful category (that actual people use to understand their own practices), and the specific problem with online/offline is when it gets mapped onto the ontological binaries like atoms/bits and digital/physical. That move has the tendency to reify and reduce human activity to stable prior ontologies. (Like reducing gender to prior biological sex, as though that weren’t itself always already ideological.) This is what Carr is doing with “wilderness” and Turkle does with her concern trolling about mothers. But if that’s the case it seems like the thing to do is to avoid the naturalized categories of that slippage.

By contrast with offline/online, which can sometimes slip into atoms/bits but can also just be sui generis, the atoms/bits and digital/physical binaries seem like they’re always on the cusp of naturalizing themselves. Boesel makes the same point:

importantly, this dualism [online/offline] has the lowest chance of slipping unexpectedly into an ontological conundrum: “online” and “offline” are entirely conceptual, and don’t attempt to map onto anything in objective reality (the way that, say, the human concept of “nature” tries to map onto rocks and trees and other things that exist without people).

Isn’t this a virtue of online/offline rather than a bug? Since online/offline directly focuses on humans and things they do rather than metaphysics, the question of their spuriousness is an empirical/sociological one: do people organize their lives along these lines? If so, then those categories are not spurious but interesting. On the other hand, atoms/bits and digital/physical don’t refer to people at all, so they’re either only relevant to some very esoteric metaphysical questions about substances (and therefore irrelevant to sociological questions) or to the extent that they are applied to sociological questions they always run the risk of slipping into explaining/reducing human practices to prior metaphysical categories. And that’s just the thing I think we should avoid.

So for instance we can do a sociology of gender that acknowledges the importance of gender categories to lived human experience without ever talking about biological sex except to the extent that people themselves talk about biological sex in their gender performances. We might similarly do a sociology of technology that is interested in the social/discursive categories that structure people’s lived experience without every having to concern ourselves with true nature of the underlying substances. (It’s worth noting that atoms/bits and digital/physical really implicate much more fundamental metaphysical concepts than even biological sex does — we’re not just referring to some prior constraint particular to human organisms but rather to the basic physical structures of the universe itself! I honestly can’t understand why we need to make such reference to do good sociology of technology.)

So maybe it still feels to me like the concession that there are atoms/bits but they are intermeshed and bear no relationship to online/offline (i.e., the human practices) looks a lot like a gender theory that distinguishes gender from sex, conceding that biological sex is real but arguing that gender is always socially constructed. The traditional coming out of Butler shows how that concession itself basically gives away the game. Also to say gender is socially constructed may be different than to say it’s “spurious.” It is spurious in the sense that the grounds it claims for itself don’t hold up, but it is clearly not spurious in the sense that it is pragmatically powerful in structuring human experience.

So then to the extent that atoms/bits are the ground that online/offline claims to justify itself, pointing to the actual enmeshment of atoms/bits in all areas of lived human experience is a useful critique. (I.e., “look, online/offline doesn’t map onto the metaphysical categories you think it does” is equivalent to “look, gender performances don’t map onto bodies the way you think they do.”) But if it requires continually reasserting the reality of the atoms/bits distinction, then I still think it comes close to giving away the game. I.e., what is gained by constantly asserting that we “recognize the difference between atoms and bits”? I’m pushing this analogy way to far, but getting rid of online/offline while keeping digital/physical seems like responding to the sex/gender distinction by throwing out gender but keeping biological sex. Which sucks. Instead, can’t we just ignore the question of the underlying physical reality altogether and get on with the work of studying how people use technology?

Part of this is that I clearly have a very different intuition about the connotations of all these categories than Boesel does. She writes:

Granted, that Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital are (ontologically) false dualisms doesn’t mean that digital dualists—and other people who are wrong—don’t invoke them as dualisms anyway (e.g., as if “the physical” and “the digital” would somehow have beef with each other if suddenly all the people disappeared and there was no one left to imagine it that way), but the important point here is: these two are slippery dualisms. [. . .] it’s important that we call attention to when these pairs are being invoked as oppositional binaries without ourselves reinforcing the idea that there’s anything zero-sum about them. There are lots of things which are not physical, for example, but also not digital; “digital” and “not physical” should not be used interchangeably.

The Online/Offline dualism, however, is a bit different. For starters, it’s a genuine oppositional binary: though proponents of augmented reality argue otherwise, in its original (or typical) framing, “online” and “offline” are mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed. Notably, where both the Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital dualisms take two preexisting concepts and pair them in a newer oppositional relationship, the “online” and “offline” concepts were from their first use co-produced as a zero-sum pair.

Perhaps it’s precisely the fact that both terms of online/offline are new and obviously constructed by humans to describe humans that makes it seem much less of a problem to me. Right, digital/physical and atoms/bits are putting one new thing in binary relation to one preexisting—but also ahistorical, fundamental, natural, metaphysically prior—thing. Isn’t that necessarily to inflect “bits” and “digital” with huge implications for questions about eternal, fundamental, natural, metaphysical issues? Online/offline is just some complicated, messy stuff that people do; atoms and physicality are all the things ever. So Boesel’s recommendations (“it’s important that we call attention […] without ourselves reinforcing the idea that there’s anything zero-sum about them”; “’digital’ and ‘not physical’ should not be used interchangeably”) seem to me to be actually much harder to follow than their framing imply. Whereas pointing out how people actually engage with (perform) online/offline in their lived experience seems relatively straightforward, since we never have to account for the fundamental material construction of the universe. And then whether online/offline is zero-sum is an empirical question about how people actually live those categories, rather than something that is analytically implied by the categories themselves. By contrast, while “digital” and “not-physical” may not be the same, opposing digital to physical does seem to imply that all the matter in the world is not digital.

One of the virtues of online/offline is that it’s only as important as it ends up being. That is, it’s very possible that research will show (has shown, I think pretty clearly) that online/offline really aren’t all that important to people’s lived experiences. In my previous post I listed a bunch of other possible categories for conceptualizing people’s activities, among them intimate/instrumental, public/private, work/leisure. I expect that these in particular are much more important to people’s actual uses of technology than online/offline is. And that’s what’s great about online/offline: we can reject it if we want to. But if we’ve already opposed the digital to all the matter in the universe, then I feel like we’re kind of stuck working at that scale, and all human uses of technology must constantly be evaluated in light of fundamental metaphysical questions. Boesel frames her post with the question “Is there a reality outside of human experiences?” I agree that this is the question that’s been raised, but I think the fact that this is the question is itself the problem. Other questions are possible!

The problem with digital dualists isn’t that their metaphysics are bad. That concedes way too much. Their problem is a poor moral and sociological imagination, which is not resolvable by making increasingly precise statements about the nature of reality. If in responding to digital dualist ideologues who are concern trolling the world by telling all of us that our ubiquitous and mundane uses of technology somehow represent our profound failure as human beings—if in response to these moralizing creeps we’re forced to reaffirm that “human experiences are real, but they are not themselves the whole of reality,” then it seems to me like the sociology of technology is fated to become just one more horrible version of the realism/correlationism debate. But let’s please not be OOO.

Hannah Montana and tween postfeminism paper for #SCMS13

This is the text of a talk I presented yesterday (March 7) at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Chicago, as part of a (really wonderful and exciting) panel on the “Problematics of Postfeminist Girlhood” organized by Amanda Rossie.

“The Best of Both Worlds”: Hannah Montana, “having it all,” and postfeminist tween domesticity

In this talk I want to think about the problematic of postfeminist girlhood specifically as a question about the intersections between gender and age, and how musical and televisual representations of childhood deploy discursive repertoires adapted from postfeminism. I’ll focus on conflicting representations of domesticity and publicity in the Disney Channel sitcom Hannah Montana. In the show 14-year-old Miley Stewart lives a secret life as pop star Hannah Montana. The show’s narrative conflict centers on tensions between Miley’s personal and professional lives, and episodes dramatize the disruptions that her public life creates for Miley’s “normal” childhood. In this paper I’ll focus on the pilot episode from 2006, in which Miley’s concealed celebrity leads to a crisis with her best friend Lily.

Here I’m especially interested in two themes that are central to postfeminism, and which are redeployed in interesting ways in Hannah Montana. The first is the tension between public and private, which takes various forms, but in particular I’m interested here in the concern that women’s move into the workplace presents a threat to intimate relations—especially, but perhaps not only, to the private sphere of the family. I think we can identify the classic postfeminist resolution to this problematic as being to just assume it away; that is, postfeminism recommends either that you make your personal life your work (as for example with Carrie Bradshaw, whose job is to write columns about her sex life) or make your work your family (as, say, with Ally McBeal, whose workplace is the site of a robust and caring group of friends).

From this perspective, the postfeminist take on conflict between public and private is to ask “Conflict? What conflict?” But what it actually does is to ignore the original problem of the family, instead displacing intimacy onto non-familial relationships. Friendship is the key alternative, and I think we can say that a valuable (though by no means unique) contribution of postfeminist texts like Sex and the City or Ally McBeal is to highlight friendship as a relationship (Jane Gerhard [2005] argues a queer relationship) that accommodates care, dependence, emotional and financial support, stability, and affection outside of heterosexual marriage.

The other theme I want to trace is domesticity. In the canonical postfeminist works like Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, despite the protagonists’ rich personal and professional lives, the narratives revolve around (or at least repeatedly return to) their deeply felt lack of and desire for children or husbands. This is often framed in terms of a tension between feminism and femininity, where the former is what allows for personal and professional success in the first place, but which seems in the same stroke to foreclose the sort of essential or authentic femininity embodied in roles like mother or wife.

So on the one hand postfeminism presents a superheroic reconciliation of public and private; and on the other hand it laments a field of naturalized gender identity that is left behind. Hannah Montana is built around an almost identical problematic, except the desired but unattainable role is not marriage or motherhood, but friendship itself. Rather than friendship being the intimate relation that allows for reconciling public and private, as in classically postfeminist texts, friendship here is the mode of intimacy that is most threatened by publicness. So I want to argue for two contrasting readings of Hannah Montana: in one, deep contradictions between public and private are reconciled by the ideological deus-ex-machina of consumption and “love conquering all.” And in the other, the problematics of postfeminism are repurposed as a specific problematic of postfeminist girlhood—even perhaps, of consumer childhood more generally—in which not so much femininity as childhood is at stake, and rather than narrating a simplistic morality play of gender-identity retrenchment the show can be read as struggling with what it might mean for children to have real public lives.

So, to lay my cards on the table, I am primarily interested in thinking about childhood and its contradictions, for which I find the tools of feminist analysis overwhelmingly useful. But that also means I run the risk of appropriating those tools and leaving important questions about gender behind. My goal is to start from intersectionality. Childhood and femininity are deeply co-constructed categories: women are infantilized and children are feminized; female youth and sexual purity are fetishized while childhood innocence is profoundly eroticized (Kincaid 1998); women are historically treated as legal and social minors subject to paternal power, and the infantilization of women ipso facto subordinates actual infants and children.

What’s more, the sphere of children’s entertainment that is emerging the most rapidly is directed to “tweens,” who a category that is presumptively (if not categorically) made up of girls. The term, which is a cutesy play on “teen” and “between,” emphasizes an age-based tension between grown-up autonomy and childhood domesticity that resembles nothing so much as the postfeminist tension between feminism and femininity. So talk about tweens is always already gendered. It’s also always already white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist, but then childhood also, as it’s hegemonically constructed, is itself presumptively feminine, white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist. So I want to leave at least a little breathing room for the possibility that, in narrating problematics understood as specific to childhood, the most semiotically efficient route—that is, the framework that draws the most coherent boundaries around childhood as an identity—is this one that is evacuated of marked racial, class, geographical, or political signifiers.

So that’s a lot of preliminaries, sorry! But this is my first presentation on a relatively new project for me, and I want to do my due diligence. On to the show itself:

In its theme song, titled “The Best of Both Worlds,” Hannah Montana poses two worlds, and asserts that you can have the best of both of them.

You get the limo out front
Hottest styles, every shoe, every color
Yea when your famous it can be kinda fun
It’s really you but no one ever discovers
In some ways you’re just like all your friends
But on stage you’re a star

You get the best of both worlds
Chillin’ out, take it slow
Then you rock out the show

You go the movie premiers
(Is that Orlando Bloom?)
Hear your songs on the radio

Livin’ two lives is a little weird
But school’s cool cuz nobody knows

Yea you get to be a small town girl
But big time when you play your guitar

Pictures and autographs
You get your face in all the magazines
The best part’s that
You get to be who ever you wanna be

Who would of thought that a girl like me
Would double as a superstar?

(lyrics by Matthew Gerrard and Robert Nevil, © 2006 Walt Disney Music Company)

On the one hand we have lyrics that emphasize authenticity: “a small town girl,” “a girl like me,” “like all your friends.” On the other hand there’s an exuberant celebration of the joys of celebrity. There’s a hint of tension in the mention that “living two lives is a little weird.” But keeping the two worlds secret—“school’s cool cause nobody knows”—resolves the tension simply and completely. Being a small town girl like all your friends is directly incompatible with being a celebrity pop star with your picture in all the magazines. But the song performs the classic postfeminist move of simply assuming the contradiction away. Who cares if they’re incompatible: do both!

There’s another, more indirect tension around the idea of an authentic self in the first place: the phrase “it’s really you,” which would imply that there is a real you, might be read against “The best part’s that / You get to be whoever you want to be.” And looking closely, the “small town girl” line reads “you get to be a small town girl”; that is, even that identity might also be a choice. Combined with “hottest styles, every shoe, every color,” we can see another classic postfeminist trope of individual choice and empowerment through consumption, where choosing which of two contradictory identities you might want to wear at any moment is as simple as choosing a pair of shoes, and Miley is lucky primarily because she has a bigger closet full of shoes and identities.

So the theme song presents the “situation” of the sitcom as a classically postfeminist and unsatisfying reconciliation of two worlds, one public and one private. If “Best of Both Worlds” is arguing that it’s possible to “have it all,” the “all” encompasses celebrity on the one hand—something like, but a lot more than, a job—and school and friendship on the other. That’s a rather different “it all” than “work” and “family,” and I think this matters for how we think about how Hannah Montana is working through something like a postfeminist problematic within the specific context of childhood.

By contrast to the theme song, the show itself spends a lot more effort fretting about the tensions rather than assuming them away. The pilot opens with Miley’s best friend Lily, who doesn’t know the secret, inviting Miley to see Hannah Montana in concert. Miley declines (she can’t very well attend her own show), and Lily is reasonably upset that her best friend won’t join her to see their favorite act. Miley’s dad advises her to tell Lily the secret, but Miley anticipates horrible results.

“No one would treat me the same”; “I’d never be ‘just Miley’ again.” Now rather than it being a simple matter of “school’s cool cause nobody knows,” the possibility of Miley’s secret being discovered presents an existential crisis. And that crisis framed relationally: “just Miley” is Miley’s identity to Lily: “if she knew the truth, I’d never be ‘just Miley’ again.” The rest of the episode plays out around Miley’s efforts to conceal her identity from Lily. When she finally reveals herself, Lily is upset, but then understanding, and protests that she could never like Hannah Montana more than Miley.

But then Lily gets too excited about Miley’s incredible closet and screws up, calling her “Hannah” instead of Miley.

And finally they reconcile again.

So there’s a lot going on in all of this. Maybe most important is Miley’s own expression of preferences: what she wants most of all is to be Miley, which means specifically to participate in particular sorts of relationships and social roles: to be someone’s best friend and a normal girl at school. Interestingly, her actual family is never an existential problem: more like Ally McBeal’s or Carrie Bradshaw’s group of friends, Miley’s family can be a source of comic relief and sometimes frustration, but they are a stable and unquestioned presence in her life. (So for instance conflict with her brother does not lead to existential fear for the loss of that relationship.) Miley’s friendships, on the other hand, look much more like postfeminist romances: deeply felt and intensely valuable relationships whose stability and continuity is desired but, despite protest to the contrary, not assured, and instead under constant threat and requiring continuous affirmation.

And rather than consumption being the magic tool to resolve all contradictions, Hannah’s material excess elicits an overabundance of desire in Lily that again threatens to destabilize the friendship. We can keep up the comparison with heterosexual romance narratives: overwhelming consumer desire is perhaps the master trope of the cultural definition of the identities of tween girls like Lily. To the extent that that desire is for celebrity bodies like Hannah’s, we might liken this tween consumer desire to constructions of masculine sexual desire. Rosalind Gill {, 2007 #1559} argues that the postfeminist sensibility requires girls and women to internalize the male gaze and self-objectify, resolving the problem of objectification by accepting it as an authentic form of pleasure and subjectivity. This is done primarily through consumer practices of clothing and decorating the body. Lily’s desire for Hannah, which in this scene even revolves around clothing, presents Miley with a similar situation in which a desiring gaze threatens her subjectivity. It seems like if Miley were to follow the scripts of Gill’s postfeminist sensibility she should internalize Lily’s objectifying gaze and adopt Hannah as her full-time authentic self. Whether her strong rejection of that option reflects a critical sensibility toward postfeminism is less interesting to me than the relationships that are filling the postfeminist roles. Friendship here looks a lot like romance.

Finally, the episode’s resolution is basically that true love conquers all: Lily affirms once that she would never like Hannah more than Miley, her actions reveal that to be false, but then she permanently heals the relationship by simply affirming the same thing again. To the extent that this resolution is deeply and obviously unsatisfying, I think we can read the show not as making the simplistic argument that the best of both worlds are easily available, but as instead struggling in a pretty intense way with what it might mean to be part of two worlds in the first place. But then if the second world of Hannah’s fame is such an unrealistic fantasy, it’s hard to find a motivation of all this fraught struggle in the first place? (Clark Kent’s relationship with Lois Lane was never so fraught!) I think in part the unrealistic fantasy of celebrity reflects the real problem that it’s actually hard to picture what it might mean for a 12-year-old girl to have a full public life. But on the other hand, maybe what it means is right in front of us: 12-year-old girls already are full participants in the public sphere of consumption, which is so full of exuberant performances and membership in mass-mediated publics that the figure of a celebrity performer might reasonably stand in as its cypher.

So what I want to stress is that this problematic of public and private, when applied to kids, involves similar structures but different content. That is, if “femininity” is the contrasting term to “feminism” in postfeminist discourse, here something much more like “girlhood” or even “childhood” is set up as the authentic but tenuous identity that is threatened by participation in a public world. Miley Stewart can never reveal her secret identity to the whole world, because if she did so she would stop being a child. You can’t be a be an international pop star and a small town girl who’s just like your friends with a normal school life. But those things are what it means to be a child, just like motherhood and marriage are in some deep way constitutive of culturally constructed femininity. And I think this is confirmed by the larger narrative arc of the show. Miley does finally reveal her secret, but only at the point when she and her friends will leave for college, which is to say, officially terminate their status as children, and being a small town girl with a normal school life no longer exists to be threatened.

To conclude: the children’s consumer and entertainment industries are growing unbelievably rapidly. Participation in the sphere of consumption entails a form of publicity that is in stark contrast to a traditional (if never historically valid) construction of childhood as private, innocent, and islanded in domestic spaces. That problem looks a lot like tensions around gender that media representations have been working through for decades or more. I don’t know if tween media is directly borrowing these discursive frameworks from postfeminism as ready-made tools for narrating its own problematics, or if the postfeminist problematics of intimacy and publicity simply reflect universal problems of identity, so the parallels are just coincidental, or if really what going on is just more postfeminism, where the specific problematics of tween identity are entirely reducible to gender and the fluidities between friendship and romance, and consumer and sexual desire, are just epiphenomena. Probably it’s some combination of the three.

Cited:

  • Gerhard, Jane. 2005. “Sex and the City: Carrie Bradshaw’s Queer Postfeminism.” Feminist Media Studies 5 (1): 37–49.
  • Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147–66.
  • Kincaid, James R. 1998. Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. Durham: Duke University.

The digital dualism of “digital dualism” critics

[Update: Jurgenson replied in the comments below and with a longer post here.]

Nathan Jurgenson at the blog Cyborgology coined the term “digital dualism” to describe the common discourse, exemplified recently by Sherry Turkle in her Alone Together, that maps “online” and “offline” onto “virtual” versus “real,” with deep (but often unstated) ideological implications (e.g.). This culminated in an essay for The New Inquiry called “The IRL Fetish.”

Cyborgology is named for Donna Haraway’s  “Cyborg Manifesto,” which had similar anti-dualist motivations, trying to find a way to overcome the  mind/body and culture/nature dualisms that (1) are deeply rooted in Western epistemologies and (2) have profound and direct implications for the systematic subordination of women in and through their bodies. Cyborgology, then, has anti-dualism at is core, in ways that are really positive.

I’m struggling with ways that Jurgenson seems to undermine his critique of digital dualism by repeatedly protesting that he really doesn’t think that the “digital” and “physical” are the same, in ways that seem to me to concede the dualist categories that he so effectively critiques. For instance, Jurgenson recently responded to a critical post by Nicholas Carr, who argues that

Nature existed before technology gave us the idea of nature. Wilderness existed before society gave us the idea of wilderness. Offline existed before online gave us the idea of offline.

Carr is clearly wrong here, in some really important ways. The most important, to my view, is ethical: this is a collection of normative (value) statements couched in descriptive (fact) language. And as Haraway, among others, has shown at length, the fantasy of “nature” is all tied up with fantasies of unitary subjectivity, of authentic personhood, of mastery, that are themselves pillars of some pretty terrible politics. (As an aside, I tend to think that the stakes here, and the reason that the Haraway reference that’s built into all of this is so important, is that this nature/culture discourse ultimately reduces to some very specific questions about the value and autonomy of women’s bodies. This isn’t just subliminal: when we’re talking about nature and humans, reproduction is always half a breath away, and Turkle repeatedly gives this away; she can’t help but to constantly bring up, apropos nothing, how the really big problem with technology is that it might in some ways free women from oppressive childcare practices, which is presumptively terrible.)

Jurgenson responds, correctly, that “nature” and the “real” are always socially constructed, and therefore ideological:

“Nature” is always a social construction, and appeals to it should be followed by ‘whose nature’? Or, as I frame it in these discussions about digital-experience, who benefits when one person anoints themselves a worthy arbiter of what set of experiences is more or less real?

And:

I implore thinkers to always and deeply take on the digital as comprising real people with real politics, histories, struggles, with real bodies and real feelings and so on.

And:

we’ve falsely constructed the categories “on-“ and “off-line” in order to tell the story that there is something virtual impinging on the real, allowing us to claim one’s own disconnection makes one more real.

These are exactly right. Importantly these are not statements that “online and offline are the same,” which seems to be the position that  Jurgenson wants to attribute to his critics from the other direction:

Instead these statements are correct not because they treat online and offline as two stable categories that are in fact identical (which would clearly be a bizarre and self-negating position), but because they problematize the stability of those categories in the first place. This is a standard critical move: identify a naturalized term or category, and show that it is actually a social construction full of ideological content. When folks are throwing around the word “real” to distinguish one set of ubiquitous and mundane human practices from another set of ubiquitous and mundane human practices, this is a pretty straightforward critique to level successfully.

But then where I get hung up is that, mixed among these strong and effective critical statements, are defensive responses to Carr that seem to concede exactly the categories that are being deconstructed. So to prove that he never made the straw-man argument Carr attributes to him, Jurgenson quotes himself in the “IRL Fetish” essay as writing that “the digital and physical are not the same”, and he goes on to protest that Facebook and coffee shops really are different.

Hopefully the whole disagreement doesn’t hinge on whether Facebook and a coffee shop are the same thing. A lot of pixels would be wasted on a not very interesting question. But this business about the “digital and physical are not the same” is important, and it seems to me to concede the entire argument. If the word for all the stuff that isn’t digital is “physical” (or elsewhere, “material,” which is to say, matter, stuff, substance), then I don’t see how we’re not just back at this dualist metaphysics where there is stuff, nature, bodies, matter, on the one hand, and information, minds, ideas, communication, on the other. (In fact, compared to “digital” versus “physical,” “online” and “offline” seem like supremely useful and non-ideological categories, that do describe and differentiate actually occurring activities, and don’t presuppose that one is somehow not made out of atoms and molecules. There must be an implicational hierarchy where deconstruction of online/offline implies the equivalent critique of parallel but even more metaphysically fraught binaries like digital/physical.)

In fact Jurgenson builds this problem in from the beginning, posing in the place of digital dualism what he calls “augmented reality.” Unfortunately, Carr has him dead to rights when he concludes his post with

An augmentation, it’s worth remembering, is both part of and separate from that which it is added to. To deny the separateness is as wrongheaded as to deny the togetherness.

Right! If you start with reality, and then you augment it, then you’ve got two distinct things that can always be distinguished. This is a dualist model! The solution here is to stop talking about “reality” altogether.

Another Cyborgology blogger, Jenny Davis, tries to find real-world examples of specific degrees of augmented reality, from bots playing video games (pure digital) to live-tweeting a conference (mild augmented) to motion-activated virtual reality (strong augmented). The implication is that there is digital and there is physical and they interact more or less in different situations. Jurgenson suggests something similar by suggesting we view the digital and physical as enmeshed and intersecting. Or another co-blogger, Whitney Erin Boesel, has a long post arguing that anti-digital dualists are obligated to come up with new boundaries to distinguish “online” from “offline,” rather than just rejecting the categories altogether. But if we’re left trying to sort out an empirical typology of intersecting digital and physical domains, or figuring out exactly what are the boundaries between the two categories, it seems to me like we’re in the position of Descartes trying to identify the organ in the brain where the soul interacts with the body. The dualism is established, and our job is just to figure out how these fundamentally different substances (soul and body, bits and atoms) can possibly interact.

I think it’s worth going back to Haraway again. The point of “cyborgs” is precisely to get beyond a binary model of natural (real) bodies, and artificial protheses. The discourse of cyborgs actively rejects “reality,” “nature,” and the “physical” (again, in large part because those are always already fantasies of unitary subjectivity that posit the “natural” female body and biological reproduction as the site of masculine self-realization):

The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-Oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labor, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense […] An origin story in the ‘Western’, humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate, the task of individual development and of history, the twin potent myths inscribed most powerfully for us in psycho-analysis and Marxism. Hilary Klein has argued that both Marxism and psychoanalysis, in their concepts of labor and of individuation and gender formation, depend on the plot of original unity out of which difference must be produced and enlisted in a drama of escalating domination of woman/nature. The cyborg skips the step of original unity, of identification with nature in the Western sense. (150–51)

Maybe everyone already gets this and I’m being pedantic by bringing up the old theory texts. But I think it’s important! The critique of digital dualism has real stakes, and not just for pro- and anti-technology partisans. The organic unity of offline reality that the Sherry Turkles of the world are pursuing is a masculinist Western fantasy of mastery through domination, in which “nature” is posited in order to be transcended. What we need is to “skip the step of original unity,” which means not starting with reality and then “augmenting” it. The right argument against Cartesian mind/body dualism isn’t “well then, smart guy, how does the soul interact with the body?!” but “your categories are blinkered and we’re going to stop using them!” Jurgenson’s co-blogger, DA Banks, argues that we are “always already augmented,” which is getting there, but why do we need to use “real” or “reality” at all? At best it grants the possibility that there might be phenomena in this world that are not “real,” which is nonsensical; at worst it reaffirms this fantasy of original unity that presupposes a deeply hierarchical politics.

Rather than “the digital” and “the physical,” can’t we just have “lots of different stuff”? I’m serious here. Digital is a perfectly useful word, but it’s not clear that it describes in any coherent way a broad category of human experience. It includes typing in MS Word, sharing photographs on Facebook, job interviews on Skype, talking with family on Skype, reading The New York Times, reading New York Times reporters’ Twitter feeds, recording voice notes, playing flash video games like Tanks, playing first-person shooter video games, playing sudoku, playing the guitar, making music, making art, making videos, sharing music, sharing art, sharing videos, sharing earbuds, texting, talking on the phone, watching TV, watching classic movies, watching new movies, watching movies at home, watching movies at the theater, watching time-shifted TV (on TV, on a laptop, on a tablet using cable On Demand, using Hulu, using bittorrent), using a calculator, typesetting, graphic design, analyzing quantitative research data, analyzing qualitative research data, watching old music videos, doing regression analyses, searching for information, consuming information, sharing lolcats, tracking packages, tracking financial transactions, tracking voter rolls, organizing phone banks…

So making a list like that is maybe more pedantry (sorry, really), but I can’t understand what is useful about “digital” as the category that describes all these things, especially in contrast with “physical”? Is there anything that these things share in contrast with “matter”? Categories like work, play, intimate, instrumental, public, private, investment, consumption, management, organization, entertainment, communication, and analysis, are much more relevant to understand these different practices. But when Jurgenson goes on to provide a typology of different positions on digital dualism, from strong digital dualism to strong augmented reality, none of the available positions has space for what I think is directly implied by a critique of IRL fetishism, which would be something like: “the categories digital and physical have very limited utility for describing things people do, and the widespread use of those categories in scholarly and everyday discourse mostly an expression of ideology (a form of fetishism).” (A fetish is a conceptual error, a misrecognition of something for something it’s not. Classically a misrecognition of relations among people as relations among objects. So for “IRL” discourses to be a fetish the problem needs to be that they misrecognize some phenomena as “real life,” when those phenomena in fact are something else.)

Evgeny Morozov, in his review of Stephen Johnson’s Future Perfect, advocates a “particularizing” approach that rejects broad categories like “the Internet” and instead “engages with platforms and technologies on their own terms, as if they share no common logic.” This seems exactly right to me. “The digital” is lots of stuff, all of which is material/physical. Digital dualism is a pervasive fetishistic discourse of which Jurgenson has provided a pointed and devastating critique. But then, just as that critique is leveled, we’re back to searching for the boundary between the digital and the physical!

(I feel like I’m talking past Jurgenson here, and I’m trying to figure out where/why I find his critique so excellent but his proposed alternative so disappointing. That confusion suggests to me that I am very possibly missing or misunderstanding something important. But I can’t tell what it is. So hopefully this will be read [if it’s read at all!] in that spirit.)