Go check it out! (How) Have Technological Shifts Changed Being a Sports Fan?
Category Archives: poststructuralism
I’m going to be presenting this idea later this year at the International Communication Association conference, and I gave a talk on some other research using these methods at the Association of Internet Researchers conference last October, so it’s maybe not entirely vital that I blog about it, but something I read a while back that made me want to do it, and now there’s the time in the schedule to do so.
So I’m going for it, in part because this platform has broader accessibility than either conference. Though, as of yet, not a broader audience. Someday.
This blog post had its genesis, as many of mine do, in something that I read. Embarrassingly enough, I can’t remember how I found this particular article, though I have a strong suspicion that it came to me via being cited in something I read from Culture Digitally, though I can’t find it again there.
Regardless of how I came by it, however, Mary Hodder’s TechCrunch post, Why Amazon Didn’t Just Have a Glitch, pointed to the kinds of issues that make one of my methodological innovations in fan studies vital.
In the piece, Hodder described an incident in which all books with LGBT content were filtered out of general Amazon.com search results because they were classified as “adult,” thus resulting in, among other outcomes, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality (to which I will NOT be linking, thank you very much) being the top result for a search for “homosexuality.” This generated a flutter of Twitter activity under #AmazonFail. But, as Hodder explains:
The issue with #AmazonFail isn’t that a French Employee pressed the wrong button or could affect the system by changing “false” to “true” in filtering certain “adult” classified items, it’s that Amazon’s system has assumptions such as: sexual orientation is part of “adult”. And “gay” is part of “adult.” In other words, #AmazonFail is about the subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms and classification that contain discriminatory ideas. When other employees use the system, whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these point’s [sic] of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force, as the Amazon France Employee apparently did according to Amazon.
That idea about the “subconscious assumptions of people built into algorithms” and the ways in which, as employees use a system, “whether they themselves agree with the underlying assumptions of the algorithms and classification system, or even realize the system has these points of view built in, they can put those assumptions into force,” is exactly why my research operates from the premise that it’s vital to take the interface seriously as a way power/knowledge gets enacted—that is, as a discourse.
In my dissertation, I examine technology—specifically, the interface of official media company websites for objects of fandom—in much the same way as certain branches of cultural studies (a field to which I have an uneasy relationship, to be sure) examine representation. Technology, I argue, is—like representation—not natural or inevitable but the product of social processes. (I am, of course, not alone in this contention, but I do seem to be the only proponent among those studying fans.)
Once socially produced, then, technologies render certain uses possible and not others, and I investigate this through the “affordances” of these official websites—defined by H. Rex Hartson in his 2003 piece, Cognitive, Physical, Sensory, and Functional Affordances in Interaction Design as what a site “offers the user, what it provides or furnishes” (p. 316).
The key terms I’m deploying here are Hartson’s concepts of “functional affordance,” which is what a site can actually do; “cognitive affordance,” which lets users know what a site can do; and “sensory affordance,” which “enables the user in sensing (e.g., seeing, hearing, feeling) something” (p. 322, emphasis removed).
With these latter two types of affordances, I consider the role of the site’s menu labels, how easy it is to tell what a feature does (and distinguish it from other features), and which features are easier or harder to locate due to their position on the page or how noticeable they are (Hartson, 2003).
I also build Mia Consalvo‘s 2003 discussion, in Cyber-Slaying Media Fans: Code, Digital Poaching, and Corporate Control of the Internet, of the ways in which “corporations have created new multimedia formats that circumvent the easy ‘copy and paste’ usability of older standards,” as with the advent of Flash video, to consider other technological processes that remain below the threshold of the user’s perception, such as cookies that track behavior (p. 82). Finally, I examine the sites’ Privacy Policies and Terms of Service to determine how they frame the site-fan interaction
In part, I begin from the common argument made in evolutionary psychology and design research that affordances exist only in relation to a user and read affordances back to uncover what type of users an interface implies, considering the ways in which the interfaces of these official sites work to, as Ian Hutchby put it in his 2001 piece Technologies, Texts and Affordances, “configure the user” (p. 451). In this sense, my project also resembles that of Michele White whose 2006 book The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship examines how interfaces work to gender and embody an ideal user.
Ultimately, I seek to examine how the industry’s decisions about features work to both a) produce a particular set of behaviors and bodies as what counts as fandom and b) consume this preferred mode of fandom as a source of value for the company, keeping in mind, as Hodder does above, that this doesn’t require ill intent or even awareness of these processes on the part of employees.
Assumptions, as things that both reflect and produce a sense of how things are or should be, are powerful things, and I want to work to bring them to light.
Another outcome of Saskia Sassen‘s late-February visit to my campus was the realization that lefty internet-is-freedom types, including proponents of the “fans are liberated now” model, are actually using the same logic as righty small-government-is-freedom types.
Bear with me—this requires some backing up, some reframing, a deployment of one of my favorite theorists, and a disclaimer that I’m taking Sassen out of context. It also requires some sympathy for the ways in which graduate school is a nonstop exercise in finding the links between disparate things while thinking on one’s feet, and it’s hard to shut that off.
Okay, so, I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to say that the right-wing, Tea-Party-style position is that less state centralization is more freedom.
It is, I believe, also relatively uncontroversial to contend that lefty folks who identify the Internet as freedom point to its decentralization as the enabling feature.
What I’d like to contend is that this identification of less centralization as more freedom by both groups shows that they’re operating by the same logic.
N.B.: This post is going to be a little under-cited because, though I realized this while doing the reading for a seminar with Sassen, the key piece that inspired it seems to have been available only to seminar participants as an email attachment. Accordingly, I’m doing my best to respect that it isn’t public by paraphrasing rather than direct quotation.
Sassen pointed out that, though digital media are technologically suited to being “distributive” (that being the point of the military research that ultimately produced the ‘Net, after all), they still get used in cultural contexts, and this means that contextual social logics have bearing on how they get used.
Thus, to pay attention only to the properties of the technology is to fail to recognize those other factors, just as to say that only government control matters is to fail to recognize other factors. In both cases, institutions like capital are just as constraining.
Importantly, this isn’t to engage in some grand Marxist reductionism of all power to capital, but to pay attention to the ways in which, as a result of the given-ness of capitalism, especially in the US, this type of control is perhaps worse because more insidious. That is, sheer lack of awareness makes this form of constraint far less transparent than even the relatively opaque world of legislation, because people aren’t even looking.
Related to this, both the internet-is-freedom left and the small-government right are operating with a set of false opposites. As Sassen pointed out in her 2008 piece Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights, there’s a tendency to think that as things de-nationalize they are inevitably global, which is a false dichotomy (p. 75); correspondingly, people are misidentifying de-restriction or the diminishment of certain kinds of restriction as freedom.
This, of course, is where I break out the Foucault and point out that just because an institution stops saying “no” to certain things doesn’t mean that those things begin to operate freely. Both the pro-Internet left and the anti-government right, that is, are operating with a sense of power only as repressive, only as that which prevents you from doing certain things, which prevents recognition of the ways in which one might be equally constrained (and, again, more insidiously so) by being encouraged to do certain things.
Sassen’s “critique of the notion of the common notion that if something good happens to the powerless it signals empowerment” in her 2011 piece, The Global Street: Making the Political (p. 574) is in line with this kind of calling out of false opposites. I also appreciate its snarky quippiness.
Thus, when we think about Internet-enabled freedom or political activism, we need a lot more subtlety and complexity, and a broader view. As Sassen points out in terms of the contemporary articulation of territory, authority, and rights, “proliferation does not represent the end of national states, but it does begin to disassemble the national” (2008, p. 62), and I find this really productive.
To understand state power, or Internet power, or, indeed, capital’s power, that is, we have to think in terms of disassembly, fissure, and change rather than a binary determination of the continuing existence or end of certain forms of repression.
Reading some selections from Society Must Be Defended clarified a number of things for me, theoretically. First it helped me understand why I’ve never been comfortable describing the processes my research examines as “disciplining” fans, despite my adviser encouraging me to do so.
It also helped me understand why I’ve always liked History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 so much more than Discipline and Punish—which I previously just had to take on faith wasn’t due to my having completed substantially fewer readings of the latter or the former being shorter.
The reason for both of these (dis)inclinations, as it turns out, is biopolitics.
“Biopolitics deals with the population,” Foucault specifies (245); its “purpose is not to modify any given phenomenon as such, or to modify a given individual insofar as he is an individual, but, essentially, to intervene at the level at which these general phenomena are determined, to intervene at the level of their generality” (246), and it is this kind of generality without an investment in the individual that is what I’m noticing as having happened with respect to fans in the age of the Internet.
This, then, is why “discipline” hasn’t ever seemed to fit; the processes of the production of fandom that I look at in my research don’t involve “individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and, if need be, punished” (242).
“Unlike disciplines,” the production of socially-sanctioned fandom doesn’t “train individuals by working at the level of the body itself. There is absolutely no question relating to an individual body” (246), and neither does any “question relating to an individual body” enter into either my research interests in general or my research on fandom in particular.
Discipline, that is, is intimate. Biopolitics is anonymous, and so are the kinds of operations of power I’m interested in: contemporary media companies implement policies to encourage some outcomes and discourage others (243); the production of a valorized conception of fandom functions to teach the population of media consumers the way to manage and/or optimize itself (244).
Indeed, even techniques that Foucault describes as being deployed by states to manage national populations that would seem to be entirely irrelevant are actually useful tools for thinking about how the status of fandom has changed in the last decade or so; Foucault discusses the shift from epidemic to endemic problems as how public health is managed (243-4), and there is definitely a sense in which fandom has moved from being an outside phenomenon that happens to media companies to being a persistent condition that is internal to the media system to the extent that companies plan for and around it.
Similarly, the discussion of state racism parsing out “what must live and what must die” (254) is clearly the same dynamic (though on a very different scale) as the delineation of “good,” to-be-encouraged vs. “bad,” to-be-stopped fan practices.
Furthermore, there is a sense in which fans or media consumers are divided into populations—perhaps, as Foucault described it in History of Sexuality, produced as species—on the basis of these practices, and these populations are not only gendered but in some sense racialized.
Foucault argues that, though discipline is the older technology and biopolitics came along later, the latter didn’t supersede and replace the former, but rather they are now both in circulation in society for different purposes.
He notes that “the element that circulates between the two is the norm. The norm is something that can be applied to both a body one wishes to discipline and a population one wishes to regularize” (252-3). This, then, explains why, in my discomfort with the term discipline, normalization seemed to better fit the work culture was doing with respect to fandom.
So, to sum up, it turns out that biopolitics does it better.
One of the most useful contributions of poststructuralism, which is the site at which poststructuralist feminism improves on its forebears, is that agency is complicated.
This is to refute the frequent, oversimplified accusation that poststructuralism’s model of power—in which there is, as Foucault (1990) put it, no outside—eviscerates the possibility of agency and instead do justice to the ways in which poststructuralism provides a nuanced and useful way to think about how we act in the world.
The first major characteristic of the poststructuralist account of agency is that agency is not a matter of acting in a way that is unconstrained by power, but rather consists of working within power, understood as both enabling and constraining—as Butler (1993) puts it in Bodies that Matter, power both subjects us (constrains) and subjectivates us (makes us subjects, empowers).
Thus, Butler (2010, p. 425) says elsewhere, “gender is not a radical choice or project that reflects a merely individual choice, but neither is it imposed or inscribed upon the individual, as some post-structuralist displacements of the subject would contend.”
Though I’m not sure which poststructuralists Butler is reprimanding here as framing gender as “imposed or inscribed upon the individual”—Bartky? Sloppy readers of Foucault?—her siting of gender as occupying a space between “individual choice” and inscription is the key intervention here.
That is, “concrete expression in the world must be understood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities. Hence, there is an agency which is understood as the process of rendering such possibilities determinate. These possibilities are necessarily constrained by available historical conventions,” but importantly this is not incompatible with agency—it is instead its condition of possibility (Butler, 2010, pp. 420-1).
It is this same complex view of agency that leads Mani (2010, p. 402) to reject the typical modes of making sense of sati (the Hindu practice of burning widows; for more information see Sati (practice) at Wikipedia), in which the options are either viewing women as “free agents” freely choosing or “producing a discourse which sets women up to be saved”; she points out that the latter “would situate women within feminist discourse in ways that are similar to their positioning within colonialist or nationalist discourse”—i.e. as not being capable of agency due to, respectively, racialized and gendered “insufficiencies.”
In place of these polarities of complete freedom and complete oppression, she contends, “structures of domination are best understood if we can grasp how we remain agents even in the moments in which we are being intimately, viciously oppressed” (Mani, 2010, p. 401).
In particular, she warns against falling into either a discourse in which “consent was sometimes conceived as impossible by definition: women were simply deemed incapable of it” or the contention that “one could hardly speak of consent when widowhood imposed its own regimes of misery” (Mani, 2010, p. 401).
Thus, though she recognizes that “the discourse of woman as victim has been invaluable to feminism in pointing to the systematic character of gender domination,” she nevertheless contends that “if it is not employed with care, or in conjunction with a dynamic conception of agency, it leaves us with reductive representations of women as primarily beings who are passive and acted upon” (Mani, 2010, pp. 401-2).
What we will do, then, is not decided in advance, but neither do we create it ex nihilo. As Butler (2010, p. 425) puts it, “surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and prescriptions, is clearly not an individual matter.”
Though the options may be (and often are) quite limited, then, agency consists in the fact that those constraints don’t mean that life is decided in advance, and our enactments of those norms, as Butler points out elsewhere, are the moments of possibility for doing them differently and opening up new options.
Another major component of the multifaceted poststructuralist view of agency is its account of why people choose things that are in some sense detrimental to them. Some put this relatively negatively, as in Mani’s (2010, p. 401) discussion of sati that describes the “meagre alternatives available” for widows, of which sati may seem the lesser evil.
Butler (2010, p. 421), too, frames compliance with the social as in some sense forced, arguing that “discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished”—which would seem to be in tension with her general understanding of power as productive.
Bartky (2010, p. 414), however, recognizes that people benefit from compliance with the norm:
Women, then, like any other skilled individuals, have a stake in the perpetuation of their skills, whatever it may have cost to acquire them and quite apart from the question whether, as a gender, they would have been better off had they never had to acquire them in the first place. Hence, feminism, especially a genuinely radical feminism that questions the patriarchal construction of the female body, threatens women with a certain de-skilling, something people normally resist: beyond this, it calls into question that aspect of personal identity that is tied to the development of a sense of competence. Resistance from this source may be joined by a reluctance to part with the rewards of compliance.
Though women “would have been better off if they had never had to acquire” the knowledge of how to do femininity properly, the fact is that at least some subset of them does know now and the world is structured such that this is a valuable knowledge.
This argument is reminiscent of Kandiyoti’s (2010, p. 85) argument about the “patriarchal bargain,” in which women hold on to patriarchy “because they see the old normative order slipping away from them without any empowering alternatives. [ . . . ] Their passive resistance takes the form of claiming their half of this particular patriarchal bargain—protection in exchange for submissiveness and propriety.”
In both cases, though the options are not great for the women choosing them, they are nevertheless making an agential decision to go along with the norms that give them a meaningful place in society. Constructions of agency solely as resistance to power cannot account for these kinds of decisions, and this additional explanatory power makes the poststructuralist contribution all the more valuable.
In the end, then, poststructuralism is an important intervention into feminism. As a proponent of the paradigm, I view this as a corrective to both overly constrained psychoanalytic accounts and overly free (neo)liberal rights-based accounts of how people choose to act in the world, but I suspect that even those who cannot accept the poststructuralist account of agency would agree that it gives us interesting things to think about.
Bartky, S. L. (2010). Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 404-418). New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2010). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 419-430). New York: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.
Kandiyoti, D. (2010). Bargaining with Patriarchy. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 80-88). New York: Routledge.
Mani, L. (2010). Mutliple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 390-403). New York: Routledge.