Category Archives: Media

Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community

Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the “Fluffy Bunny” Sanction

by Angela Coco & Ian Woodward

[Coco, Angela, and Ian Woodward. 2007. “Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the ‘Fluffy Bunny’ Sanction.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (5): 479–504.]

Points

  • Discussing “fluffy bunnies” is “a group boundary defining exercise based on moral judgments.”
    • It explores pagan ethics associated with the deployment of pagan artifacts and spiritual understandings.
    • Implicit in the discussion is a sense of a “them” who are seduced by media images and popular practices, or implicated in producing them, and a (serious, authentic) “us” who presumably distance ourselves from such things (480).
  • “In a consumer society one purchases objects—commodities such as Tarot cards, ritual tools, medieval dress—that enhance, edify, improve, and sustain self.
    • These objects then act as material boundary markers that suggest things people wish to cultivate about themselves and exclude polluting aesthetics/others” (482).

 

  • pagans are conscious of and practically engage in discussions about constructions of pagan identity and commodification of the craft which is exemplified in the notion of the “fluffy bunny” (499).
  • “A range of tensions emerges which we argue indicates the ways pagans in late-capitalist (or postmodern) society reflexively create meaning-structures around the production and consumption of goods and services that have become popularized as “pagan.” The nuanced features of these tensions reveal the conceptual distinctions and symbolic boundaries pagans create in establishing an “authentic” pagan identity” (483).
  • “The establishment of an “authentic” pagan identity is formed partly by one’s ability to discern the proper limits of commodification and consumerism in the pursuit of religious practice” (499).

 

  • Fluffy Bunnies defined:
    • “those people who gain a surface grasp of pagan practices but fail to incorporate pagan beliefs into their day-to-day life practices” (500).
    • “uninformed, immature, and lacking in their understanding of the forces of nature and consequently dangerous because they may misuse magic”—informant (500).
    • “a person who doesn’t know what they are talking about, or as was said not steadfast in there (sic) beliefs. I am sure that we have all met the 12 year old who is a high priestess and the leader of huge demonic armies and has alliances with the elves!!!!”—informant (500).
    •  “perhaps what bugs me most about these type (sic) is not so much the superficiality (which the ‘fashion-witch’ has in spades) but the hyposcrisy (sic) which often enables them todo harm whilst preaching love and light, and never once recognizing the results of their own actions”—informant (501).
    • “They refer to the superficial practitioner’s tendency to focus only on the light, happy side of life without balancing it with the dark and difficult aspects of experience” (501).

 

Abstract

The commodification of the religious impulse finds its most overt expression in the New Age movement and its subculture neopaganism. This article examines discourses in the pagan community in an Australian state. Pagans, who have been characterized as individualist, eclectic, and diverse in their beliefs and practices, network through electronic mail discussion lists and chat forums as well as through local and national offline gatherings. We explore community building and boundary defining communications in these discourses. In particular, we examine interactions that reveal the mobilization of pagans’ concern with authenticity in the context of late-capitalism, consumer lifestyles, and media representations of the “craft.” Our analysis highlights a series of tensions in pagans’ representations of and engagement with consumer culture which are evident in everyday pagan discourse. These notions of in/authenticity are captured by invoking the “fluffy bunny” sanction.

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boyd – It’s Complicated

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

by danah boyd

[ boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press. ]

Points

  • “Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously
    1. the space constructed through networked technologies and
    2. the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice.” (8, my spacing added)
    3. they are “publics  both  in  the  spatial  sense  and  in  the sense of an imagined community. They are built on and through social media and other emergent technologies … [and] serve much the same functions as publics like the mall or the park did  for  previous  generations  of  teenagers.” (9)
  • “Four affordances, in particular, shape many of the mediated environments that are created by social media.
    • persistence: the durability of online expressions and content;
    • visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness;
    • spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and
    • searchability: the ability to find content.” (11)
  • Four affordances further explained:
    • “Content shared through social media often sticks around because technologies are designed to enable persistence… Such content enables interactions to take place over time in an asynchronous fashion.”
    • “Through social media, people can easily share with broad audiences and access content from greater distances, which increases the potential visibility of any particular message… In networked publics, interactions are often public by default, private through effort.”
    • “Much of what people post online is easily spreadable with the click of a few keystrokes. Some systems provide simple buttons to “forward,” “repost,” or “share” content to articulated or curated lists.”
    • “Since the rise of search engines, people’s communications are also often searchable. Search engines make it easy to surface esoteric interactions. These tools are often designed to eliminate contextual cues, increasing the likelihood that searchers will take what they find out of context.” (11-12, italics added)
  • “The internet mirrors, magnifies, and makes more visible the good, bad, and ugly of everyday life. As teens embrace these tools and incorporate them into their daily practices, they show us how our broader social and cultural systems are affecting their lives.” (24)

  • BUT, “As a society, we often spend so much time worrying about young people that we fail to account for how our paternalism and protectionism hinders teens’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged adults.” (28)

  • Because adults don’t understand teens’ use of social media:
    • we take posts out of context
    • we conflate cyberbullying and “drama,” (“performative interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an active, engaged audience, often on social media” [138]) when teens feel that actual ‘bullying’ doesn’t happen nearly as much
    • we don’t recognize that teens use social media as a way of being social with each other, not as a method of withdrawing from sociality
    • we see their acts of protest and politics as illegitimate
    • many other reasons…
  • on publics—”People develop a sense for what is normative by collectively adjusting their behavior based on what they see in the publics they inhabit and understand.”(201)
  • definition of meme—”Memes start when a particular digital artifact—be it an image, a song, a hashtag, or a video—is juxtaposed with other text or other media to produce a loosely connected collection of media that share a similar base referent.” (210)

Abstract (blurb)

What is new about how teenagers communicate through services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? Do social media affect the quality of teens’ lives? In this eye-opening book, youth culture and technology expert danah boyd uncovers some of the major myths regarding teens’ use of social media. She explores tropes about identity, privacy, safety, danger, and bullying. Ultimately, boyd argues that society fails young people when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens through their online interactions. Yet despite an environment of rampant fear-mongering, boyd finds that teens often find ways to engage and to develop a sense of identity.

Boyd’s conclusions are essential reading not only for parents, teachers, and others who work with teens but also for anyone interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society, culture, and commerce in years to come. Offering insights gleaned from more than a decade of original fieldwork interviewing teenagers across the United States, boyd concludes reassuringly that the kids are all right. At the same time, she acknowledges that coming to terms with life in a networked era is not easy or obvious. In a technologically mediated world, life is bound to be complicated.

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Burgess—Nation, Book, Medium

Nation, Book, Medium: New Technologies and Their Genres

by Miranda Burgess

[Burgess, Miranda. 2009. “Nation, Book, Medium: New Technologies and Their Genres.” In Genres in the Internet: Issues in the Theory of Genre, 193–219. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing.]

Points

  • This essay “treats genre less as a self-evident proposition than as an analytic category that is undergoing (re)definition, a scholarly mode that has itself become the object of study”
  • “In arguing that the self-reflexive discourse of new media shares both a history and a form with the scholarly discourse about new media, this essay makes the case for the utility of genre theory in charting the process of media succession and in examining the experience of media change” (193-94).
    • emphasis is on experience, defined here as “the interface between history and the subject, or the perceptual and analytic exchange between the flow of events and their narrative rendition” (194).
  • “relatively few have sought to remake genre theory as what Cohen calls “a theory of behavior” (Cohen 2003: iv). By attending in a specifically historical way to what I will be calling the genre of new media history, this essay aims to propose, if not a general theory of generic motivation, then at least an account of genre formation in the context of the experience of change” (194).

Genre, Model, Method, Theory

  • “Marshall McLuhan addressed the citation of older media by newer ones in his famous aphorism that “The ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 1964: 23) (195).
  • “N. Katherine Hayles characterizes the relations between contemporaneously existing forms as a “medial ecology”: all media, and thus all mediated works, are to be understood in a context of interaction within and against one another (Hayles 2002: 33).”
  • “I wish to emphasize the pragmatic character of genre in my own account of new media history, which will argue for the recognition of genres in process where a common ground of what I will call, for lack of a better term, narrative form can be found among writers and new media producers. But I want, at the same time, to underline the role played by genre both as an experiential reflection and a motor of historical change” (197).

New Media Histories

meta-media:the scholarship on new media 1991-2000

  • “In the Anglo-American world of the 1990s, salons and newspapers rang to the clash of competing voices as academics, journalists, politicians and public intellectuals argued about new media […]
  • “Jean Baudrillard and Jameson, were engaged with a corresponding set of problems, which they characterized as a loss of cultural depth, of a sense of location, of a historical sense, of a sense of the real (Jameson 1991; Baudrillard 1988).1” (199).
  • the new media histories of the 1990s reference a past whose characteristic modes of social organization (the nation) and of writing and reading (the book) exist in an analytic proximity—indeed, an intimacy—that yields to a slippage between them.”

New media: The net.goths and their websites in the 1990s

  • “The slippage of nation and book that typifies the meta-media of the 1990s is even more apparent in new media practice itself: in the social networking websites produced by net.goths at the end of the twentieth century” (203).
  • “As in Rheingold’s account of the WELL, the participants in Nola-Goth.org envisioned their use of electronically mediated communication as a way to establish a form of direct democracy, which they described as a characteristic American public practice of the past and represented as having been lost. As in Doheny-Farina’s more skeptical analysis, however, they conceded the technology’s inadequacies by meeting in person to socialize and debate, and their electronic interactions remained nostalgic for the same material spaces: the town hall, coffeehouse, and tavern” (205).

New media and meta-media, 1790-1820s: Walter Scott’s situation

  • “conjunction of (old) books with nations may well be an inherited expression of crisis, one that is not, however, transhistorical, but rather post-Romantic: a form of crisis founded at the historical moment when print becomes ubiquitous (St Clair 2004: 10–13). In this context, it may be seen that the old book that is an apparent generic requirement of new media history does indeed “come from” another genre, a precursor narrative of media change in which old books and new compete on the battleground of national community” […]
  • “The “Net.Goth Directory book,” in particular, is a visibly, even exaggeratedly antiquarian object […]
  • it resembles an earlier book: the “Mighty Book, With iron clasp’d, and with iron bound,” belonging to “the wizard, Michael Scott” in Walter Scott’s 1805 narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel (Scott 1805: 2.21.8–9; 6.26.25). The antiquity of the Directory’s book thus refers doubly to its history: to the hypermediated forms of Romantic nationalism associated with Scott as well as to the interlocking conceptions of literary and national tradition on which new media history from the turn of the nineteenth century to the turn of the twenty-first has drawn in its nation—and canon—making” (208).
  • “Scott’s poem intervenes, moreover, in a context that forms a striking parallel to the emergence and spread of new communications media in the 1990s: that of the widening of reading audiences and growth in periodical writing at the turn of the nineteenth century that William St Clair has termed the rise of the “reading nation” (St Clair 2004)” […]
  • “The wooden frame of the press was replaced by iron, hand- fed broadsheets were succeeded by the mechanized feed of continuous paper, and, after 1811, the hand-worked press began giving way to steam (Steinberg 1959: 198–206)” (209).

    Page 221, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As these examples suggest, new media debate at the turn of the nineteenth century shares with the new media discussions of the 1990s a governing oppo- sition between materiality and dematerialization, substance and insubstantiality, in which the nation and old books serve as reassuring ballast.”

The genre of new media history

  • “These distinct situations share not only a narrative arc and a metaphoric register but also, I would suggest, a set of causes. To read the writings of new media historians from the turn of the nineteenth century is to find an explicit argument about the dependency of nations on literacy and the subjection of nations to the vagaries of reading. To some extent this Romantic argument may have been self-interested, rooted in very personal anxieties about the fate of literature, and poetry in particular, in what seemed to be the coming age of mass literacy and ephemeral written forms (see e.g. Keen 2000; Siskin 1998: 130–152). In this way, it parallels the hinted but rarely voiced concern of late twentieth-century commentators, academic and otherwise, about their own displacement by new media and new content—from the depopulation of academic courses and the corresponding loss of intellectual property to the tabloidization and disappearance of newspapers in the new day of the blogosphere (see Noble 1998; Liu 2004: 30; Angwin & Hallinan 2005)” (213).
  • the emergence of genre is a behavioral response to change. It is the outcome of the mingling of purpose (a response to the experience of history) and of purposiveness (the subject’s self-consciousness about his or her encounter with the forms in which history is understood and narrated) with a narrative response that, broadly, shares a common form, an arc, figure, or set of references” (214, italics and bold added).
  • “to what extent can it be suggested that genre as a category, at once a hallmark of continuity and a register of evolution, is a writer’s (failed?) response to subjectively experienced agonies of change (as a loss of agency)? (215).

Conclusions

  • For Scott and for others, the nation and the book, whether figured as the traditionary objects of nostalgia or as threatened ideals in need of restoration or defense, serve as compensatory objects in the face of medial and social history. Both are always already superseded; the question is only whether they should or can return, and in what form. For these writers, … however, genre itself—the shape of the mutually metaphorical narratives of nation and book and its function as a common ground of reference, conversation, even understanding—is the real recompense for change, even as it helps to make visible the workings and experience of history” (216).

Abstract

This essay examines some ‘new media’ practices of the 1990s together with late twentieth-century critical commentaries on computer-mediated communication and electronic textuality. It compares both with discussions of changes in communications technologies and readerships from the turn of the nineteenth century. Based on observations about narrative form—especially the mutual metaphoricity of the nation and the book—in conjunction with the associated qualities of self-consciousness about sociability, historicity, and mediatedness that emerge from this study, I propose an understanding of genre formation as a characteristic, and under-recognized, response to the experience of media change and outline the possible contributions a more self-conscious theory of genre could make to existing theories of media, mediation, and media succession.

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boyd—None of This Is Real

None of This Is Real: Identity and Participation in Friendster

by dana boyd

[Boyd, Danah. 2008. “None of This Is Real.” In Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis. Social Science Research Council.]

Points

  • Based on fieldwork among users of the social networking site Friendster, specifically during the year 2003
  • Explores how the built in affordances of what was intended to be a dating site both constricted user communication and provided avenues for creative expression

Initial design of Friendster

  • Friendster allows users to see people at up to four degrees distance from themselves, which is much more than is possible in face-to-face social engagement
  • however—”Friendster flattens those networks, collapsing relationship types and contexts into the ubiquitous “Friend.” More problematically, Friendster does not provide ways of mapping or interpreting the contextual cues and social structural boundaries that help people manage their social worlds” (134).
  • So—”Not surprisingly, participants responded to the lack of differentiating texture and shared reference points in Friendster’s flattened social networks by negotiating new social norms and rules of conduct, communicable through the existing features of the system” (134).
  • This lead to the invention of fakesters—”fake profiles that signaled not the individuals behind the profile but communities, cultural icons, or collective interests” (139).

Participatory Performance

  • “The performance of identity relies on the active interpretation of social contexts. Familiarity with a context increases a person’s ability to navigate it—to understand what is appropriate or advantageous within it—and thereby shapes choices about the persona one tries to present within it (boyd, 2002). Contexts are not static backgrounds, but constantly evolve through this process (Duranti & Goodwin, 1992). Digitally mediated performance is no different, but the novelty and narrower channel of interaction affect our capacity to interpret context” (141).
  • The user interface started to interfere with users’ performance of impression management (Goffman 1956)
    • “A growing portion of participants found themselves simultaneously negotiating multiple social groups—social and professional circles, side interests, and so on. Because profiles presented a singular identity to the entire network, however, this diversification brought with it the potential for disruption of individuals’ carefully managed everyday personas” (142-43)

Articulated Participation

  • “Although transparency of information poses an interesting challenge, where the information comes from is also a problem. As Jenny Sundén (2003) noted, digital embodiment requires writing yourself into being. On Friendster this means an explicit articulation of who you are and how you relate to others, using the predefined mechanisms for expression. Through a series of forms, profiles must be crafted to express some aspect of identity and relationships must be explicitly acknowledged in order to exist within the system. Unlike everyday embodiment, there is no digital corporeality without articulation. One cannot simply “be” online; one must make one’s presence visible through explicit and structured actions” (bold added 145).
  • Friendships became strategic—”Impression management is encoded into articulated networks. The variable ways in which people interpret the term friend play a critical role, as does the cost of signaling the value of a relationship” (147).

Rise of the Fakesters

  • Many Fakesters began as practical endeavors to connect groups of people; alumni networks were constituted through Fakesters representing universities, and Burning Man was crafted to connect Burners .., Fakesters were a way of “hacking” the system to introduce missing social texture. These purposes were not limited to group networking: The vast majority of Fakesters were exercises in creative and usually playful expression” (148).
  • Friendster began cracking down on the Fakesters, deleting profiles that seemed fake, and the Fakesters became political.
    • “the Fakester Revolution … crafted “The Fakester Manifesto” (Batty, 2003) “in defense of our right to exist in the form we choose or assume” which included three key sections:
      1.  Identity is Provisional
      2. All Character is Archetypal, Thus Public
      3. Copyright is Irrelevant in the Digital Age (151).
    • Fakesters created Fraudsters, who impersonated other people on the service. Fraudsters were meant to confuse both the Friendster service and serious users …
    • Pretendsters combined random photos from the Web and random profile data. They were not fraudulent portrayals of any particular person, but automated Fakesters that mimicked real profiles” (152).
  • “Although Fakesters had taken on a collective impression of resistance, their primary political stance concerned authenticity. In discussing Fakesters, Batty was quick to point out that there’s no such thing as an authentic performance on Friendster—“None of this is real” …
    • “Through the act of articulation and writing oneself into being, all participants are engaged in performance intended to be interpreted and convey particular impressions” (153).

BIG POINTS

  • The abolition of distance—the classic Internet virtue—rendered many social distinctions invisible; the impact of Friends’ performances on individual profiles undermined the individual’s control over social performances; and the binary social network structure—Friend/not-Friend—erased a broad field of relationship nuances. Absent these strong orienting features, participants negotiated new norms and reintroduced new forms of social complexity” (154).
  • “digital networks will never merely map the social, but inevitably develop their own dynamics through which they become the social. The interaction of people with information systems is recurrently marked by play and experimentation, as people test the limits of their settings and manage the consequences of unexpected interactions and altered contexts” (155).

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Gershon & Manning—Language and Media

Language and Media

by Ilana Gershon and Paul Manning

[Gershon, Ilana, and Paul Manning. 2014. “Language and Media.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology, edited by N.J. Enfeild, Paul Kockelman, and Jack Sidnell, 559–76. Cambridge University Press.]

Points

examines media in terms of the materiality of the medium and how that affects mediated communication

in three parts:

  1. Materiality of the Medium
    • Bauman’s entextualization basically makes an utterance material:
      • “because it is “the process by which a text is bound and made available for circulation in other contexts … serving to “objectify it as a discrete textual unit that can be referred to, described, named, displayed, cited and otherwise treated as an object” (Bauman 2004: 4, emphasis added)” (561).
      • So—in turning to materiality “one can begin to focus on some aspects of entextualization as a process in which the ways in which a text is a material form is integral to how a text can be separated from its context and integrated into other contexts” (561).
      • thus, in the process of decontextualization and recontextualization, the slight variations of the text that cause intertextual gaps are often the direct result of a material change in medium—like a printout of a document with hyperlinks, for instance
    • Goffman’s participant framework views the materiality of media as such:
      • instead of simply a ‘speaker’ and a ‘hearer,’ Goffman breaks the message down into the
        • Principal—“someone whose position is established by the words that are spoken”
        • author—“someone who has selected the sentiments that are being expressed and the words in which they are encoded”
        • animator—“the talking machine, the body engaged in acoustic activity” (1981:144).
        • figure—not always present (a role which we argue usually complements the animator, namely the character animated by the animator
      • in this framework, “the medium will influence who can be the author of a statement, how many people can be the author, as well as who is likely to be considered the author” (564).
      • This is based partially on the affordances given by the medium
        • Through the use (trial) of the medium new uses emerge
    • “the material structure of a technology often becomes a resource for people on the ground to analyze communication itself, which in turn influences, but does not predict, how people communicate. A communication technology is not only a medium, but is also a technology that people find good to think with” (567).
      • “Every medium provides a rich supply of metaphors for analyzing unmediated communication, and in doing so, every technology also offers new ways of thinking about what it means to be human” (567).
  2. Mediation as Absence of Presence: Presence and Telepresence
    • “spoken language is aligned with the immediacy of co-present interlocutors engaging in the prototypical, indeed primordial, form of spoken language, face-to-face conversation”
    • whereas—“mediation” comes to denote what is lost when situated conversation is removed from the multi-channel indexical moorings of the face-to-face context” (568).
      • In other words—”immediacy here is once again about materiality: about the range of material channels (and associated richness of indexicality and evidential possibilities for mutual monitoring) available in face-to-face conversation. Conversations that are “mediated,” then, would be those that show a reduction of this plenitude of materiality glossed by “presence” or“situation” (568).
      • many researchers find the binarization of social and mediated/technological/etc. helpful, as they can use the social face-to-face as a baseline for communication
        • personally, I don’t understand why f-t-f  gets privileged here.
    • this opposed situation can recursively hybridized into Ito and Okabe’s “augmented ‘flesh meet'”:
      • “a face-to-face social situation that is bracketed on both sides, and sometimes permeated throughout, by telephone-mediated technosocial situations …”
      • instead of being mutually disruptive (as when one receives a cellphone call in the middle of some other social situation), or “disjunctive,” instead become “contiguous,” parts of a larger technosocial gathering” (569).
    • SO—instead of a loss of presence,‘ mediation can form new styles of telepresence, as well as affordances of “new genres of presence in public which mediate relations to urban space and infrastructures, making them analytically useful in the way their use makes the often invisible domain of urban infrastructure powerfully present and visible for mobile technology users” (570).
  3. Media, Intermediaries, and Mediators
    • speech is not only realyed over space through technological mediation (telepresence) but can also be relayed through humans themselves in ‘mediational performances
      • This involves speech passed from one person to another along a spectrum, “so that the whole routine cannot be analyzed as separate dialogs but as one synthetic dialog including both a “source dialog” and a “target dialog” (571).
      • like Occupy’s human megaphone
    • according to Latour (2005:39), there is a difference (in this sitch) between:
      • intermediary—”what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. For all practical purposes, an intermediary can be taken as a black box, but also a black box counting for one, even if it is internally made up of many parts …”
      • mediator—cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output … Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (571).
    • this system of intermediaries draws attention to the way we can “establish a symmetry between human and non-human mediation: delegation”
      • Delegation involves, essentially, the question of whether a task or competence will be assigned to a human or non-human actant.”
      • Figuration is the related ontological question of whether the actant to which the task is delegated is viewed as a human (anthropomorphism) or a non-human (technomorphism) (Latour 1988, Akrich 1992)” (572 bullets added).

So—

  • “When linguistic anthropologists have focused on the intersection of language and media, they often found it useful to assume a fundamental distinction at play—be it a distinction between mediated and unmediated or situated and unsituated. “
  • “choosing to think about the contrast in terms of mediation and absence led to productive explorations of how a“community of time and space” (Goffman 1983: 2) often presupposes certain interactive aspects (such as immediacy) that participants must compensate for when not present. Analyses of media fromthis perspective explore what aspects of co-present communication a particular medium occludes or amplifies, affecting how people will communicate. Choosing, by contrast, to analyze conversations in terms of situatedness led to other, equally productive, investigations of how the social and the technical are co-constructed.”
  • “In both cases, analysts could figure out what was significant precisely because they were using co-presence as an analytical baseline. As we have shown, these two epistemological choices set the terms for much of the subsequent intellectual explorations of how language and media intertwine, and how materiality plays a part.”

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Malaby— Anthropology and Play

Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience

by Thomas Malaby

[Malaby, Thomas. 2009. “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience.” New Literary History 40 (1): 205–18.]

Points

  • The use of play as a theoretical tool, rather than being brushed off as a leisure activity, has taken hold across academic disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. Malaby wonders why Anthropology hasn’t been invested before now.
  • He argue that “while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity) were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as nonwork and play as representation” (205-6).
  • BUT, “Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers’ portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent. On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account” ( bold added, 206).

Historically, play is divided in Anthropology

  • Non-work—position held by Materialists
    • Callois: “play is an occasion of pure waste” (206).
    • play cannot be commoditized, so it is worth nothing
  • Representation—position held by representationalists (gasp)
    • Ex. Geertz & Deep Play
    • play stands as a symbol of larger and deeper cultural meanings
    • BUT WAIT: “What should interest us about this treatment of a game, however, is the way it trades one kind of reductionism for another. In his zeal to trump whatever material stakes were in play with the different stakes of meaning-making, Geertz eliminated from consideration any consequence beyond the affirmation of meaning. On his view, games become static appraisals of an unchanging social order; and thereby, one element that is vital for any understanding of the experience of play is lost” (207).
    • “That element is the indeterminacy of games and the way in which, by being indeterminate in their outcomes, they encapsulate (albeit in a contrived fashion) the open-endedness of everyday life” (207-8).
  • So the point is that games are indeterminate, much like our complexly contingent lives.
    • “an approach to games that acknowledges this indeterminacy looks quite different from its past treatments. It connects games to other domains of experience by showing how they contain the same kinds of unpredictabilities and constraints that saturate our experience elsewhere, albeit combined in a contrived fashion. Viewed this way, games assume a powerful relationship to human practice and social process.”
      • “What is more, this view allows us to see how games may be related to a particular mode of experience, a dispositional stance toward the indeterminate. This is an aspect of experience that disappears from view when practice is left out in favor of materiality or representation” (208).
    • in Play and Work: A False Dichotomy, Stevens makes “a vital point that game researchers (and social scientists generally) are still prone to forget: if by “play” we are trying to signal a mode of human experience—a way of engaging the world whatever one is doing—then we cannot simultaneously use it reliably as a label for a form of distinct human activity (something that allows us to differentiate categorically between activities that are play and those that are not)” (208).
    • So then “when the work/play distinction is left behind, we see instead in ludic practice a more useful contrast between a cultural form (a game-like activity, no matter how playfully engaged in) and a mode of cultural experience (a playful disposition towards activities no matter how game-like)” (209).
      • Csikszentmihalyi’s flow is a mode, for instance
      • For Huizinga, it is the play-element
  • In the world, we also have this type of indeterminacy or contingency
    • can be compared to Heideggerian thrownness
    • also fits well into the concepts behind practice theory
  • There are three main features to this disposition of play in the world
    1. “First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely …”
    2. “Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Marcel Mauss’s concept of the habitus …” 
    3. Finally, play is a disposition that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action” (211).
  • The playful disposition does not need games, but can be leveraged to other means: “just as with ritual, it is the power of the mode of experience associated with it that makes the deployment of the cultural form a tempting project for individuals and institutions”

Play and institutions:

  • “In its study of ritual, anthropology undertook with great success a similar project, whose enabling insights should inform our current inquiries into play not least with regard to the relationship of these institutions to a social form they are beginning to deploy for purposes of their own …”
    • “games, as outlined above, manifest a playful disposition that, seeming to lift them above institutional interests, can, by the same token, be seen to validate those interests impartially” (213).
    • examples given
      • Linden Lab and its semi-successful attempts at gamifying the in-house decision making process
      • “gold-farming,” tying gameplay to actual capital accumulation IRL
      • TopCoder.com having coders compete to write the best code for specific commercial uses—the company then owns the code

Game vs. Ritual

  • There is an important “difference between the cultural forms of ritual and game. Rituals, despite the fact that they can go wrong—the fact, that is, they are subject to contingency—aim to bring about determinate outcomes …”
  • and “Games, while also a contrived cultural form and subject to similar kinds of sponsorship, are marked by the legitimacy of their indeterminacy; that is, their outcomes are supposed to be contingent” (214).

and finally—BIG POINT

  • “What is most provocative about the current moment, then, is how the explosion of thoroughly digitized games prompts us to confront the play element and its powerful yet indeterminate relationship to the emergent cultural form of computerized games. As institutions are coming to deploy games in their governance and in their engagement with a computer-mediated public, we may be well advised to see their efforts as similar to the age-old and ongoing attempts to employ ritual to prompt sentiments for nations or other groupings. The disposition of play is, in many ways, the latest sentiment to have been turned into the object of institutional desire. Some of us are prepared to bet that its roots in indeterminacy will be a bulwark against corporate takeover; but a bet is probably the most we can hazard. “

Continue reading Malaby— Anthropology and Play

Altman—Posthum/an/ous

Posthum/an/ous: Identity, Imagination, and the Internet 

graduate thesis by Eric Stephen Altman

[Altman, Eric Stephen. 2010. “Posthum/an/ous: Identity, Imagination, and the Internet.” Thesis, Appalachian State University.]

Points

  • based mostly on online written materials, as well as 10 interviews
  • an English department MA thesis
  • looks at Furry, Otherkin, and Otakukin as three fandoms with three similar aspects
    1. emphasize an online avatar that represents identity to members
    2. engages in fan fiction
    3. has a sexual, fetishistic component as a prominent feature
      • “The object of this thesis is to engage in and describe three different communities that engage in community behavior that deviates from and challenges mainstream culture. Each of these communities is primarily based on the Internet and their members consistently identify with an identity that is not human. These communities often express discontentment with their human body or existence and instead idealize the conception of another state of existence. Interestingly enough, many members justify their beliefs by stating that they must have once been the creature that they identity with so, believing their past lives to be the one where they were once happy and accepted, as opposed to the sham of their human existence” (7).

By describing Otherkin as a fandom, Altman misses the boat completely

  • the piece references the furry subculture along with Otherkin & Otakukin as if they were comparable levels of identity
    • the problem= Furries identify with a non-human entity; Otherkin/Otakukin identify as a non-human entity
    • this leads the author to treat Otherkin identity as a fundamentally fictional construct, which is not the case to Otherkin
    • “Through the implementation of fiction and narrative, the fandoms are able to create and sustain complex fictional personas in complex fictional worlds, and thereby create a “real” subculture in physical reality, based entirely off of fiction” (33).

Altman gets close to describing Otherkin belief as a valid religion-like system by linking fandoms to mythology and religious structure:

  • “The devotion of fandoms to media is a new kind of mythology. Fans have the opportunity to adhere themselves to a system of fundamental guidelines that appeal to them, and these moral and societal edicts are transmitted through the narratives that are crafted by media and literature. The heroes and saints of religion are transmitted within the narrative of popular culture, and archetypes of mythology continue to define the way in which the viewer experiencing the media understands characters … A key difference between fandoms and religions is that fandoms are inherently outside of cultural hegemony” (41).

But then falls prey to the fandom construct by viewing Otherkin personal histories and narratives of awakening as genres of fan fiction—governed by rules, but completely fictional:

  • “if I were to endeavor to make a persona in the Otherkin community, I would have the nearly limitless horizons of fantasy literature and media from which to draw inspiration. I could easily craft a creature that defies all logical sense, but under the loose framework of fantasy, could indeed be completely plausible; if I establish enough background and history then my idea could be “believable” within the context of the fan community” (63).

Since the Otherkin belief system is based around the cultural productions of a fandom, it is an alternative ontological choice the members have made rather than a true belief system

  • “trappings of humanity isn’t so much an indication of the fandom’s sanity so much as a critique of a world that discarded them; humanity hasn’t worked, and so therefore the alternatives are explored” (89).
  • This is not necessarily true or false, but the fact that Altman starts from the position of a fandom precludes any exploration of ontological possibilities and does not take the participants of his research seriously.

Abstract

The Furry, Otherkin, and Otakukin are Internet fan subcultures whose members personally identify with non-human beings, such as animals, creatures of fantasy, or cartoon characters. I analyze several different forms of expression that the fandoms utilize to define themselves against the human world. These are generally narrative in execution, and the conglomeration of these texts provides the communities with a concrete ontology. Through the implementation of fiction and narrative, the fandoms are able to create and sustain complex fictional personas in complex fictional worlds, and thereby create a “real” subculture in physical reality, based entirely off of fiction. Through the use of the mutability of Internet performance and presentation of self-hood, the groups are able to present themselves as possessing the traits of previous, non-human lives; on the Internet, the members are post-human. The members no longer need to suffer through the society of humans around them: they can reclaim their past lives and live out a posthum/an/ous existence

Continue reading Altman—Posthum/an/ous