Recent Work

-Here's a book with a chapter I wrote, my first publication of original research to come from the project on early video games I have been working on for several years: "The Name of the Game is Jocktronics: Sport and Masculinity in Early Video Games," in Playing to Win: Sports, Video Games, and the Culture of Play (ed. Robert Alan Brookey and Thomas P. Oates).

-I wrote a post on Medium: "The Tweeting Child, or What I Learned about Social Media from a Five Year-Old" in which I talk about my son's twitter account.

-At In Media Res: "Illustrating Media History: Problems and Solutions" For this I made a video (below), which I also screened a few days ago at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies workshop "Making the Past Visible."

-And at Antenna: "#SCMS15: The Conference as Media Event" in which I compare the conference to shul on the high holidays, argue that live-tweeting is a kind of open-access publication, and point how some ways that twitter includes and excludes.

I'll skip the sad reflection on this blog turning into a place where I point you to other things I'm doing online.


Cable vs. Network: Mad Men and the Poetics of Television Narrative Revisited

Here is a postscript to my 2006 Velvet Light Trap essay “From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative” to appear in an anthology of literary theory. Ever since it was published, I have thought about writing a sequel of sorts to account for differences between conventional broadcast network dramas and the more upscale cable serials (at least as far as narrative structure is concerned). This is work in progress toward that end, so feedback is welcome.

Ten years have passed since I wrote “From Beats to Arcs.” Television and the kind of shows I wrote about have changed in many ways major and minor in that time. From the vantage point of the present, disruptions can appear more prominent than continuities, and despite some of the shifts and novelties I observe in TV storytelling (along with TV as business, technology, and experience), I also see a stable and adaptable system. Advertising-supported TV narrative is still written around commercial breaks and seasons. Beats and arcs are no more or less significant than they were generally speaking as tools of narrative design and construction, though many network shows break for ads more frequently than in the past. In all genres of TV, episodic unity tends to be a strong value. Like anyone who has been paying attention, though, I have been aware of emerging forms and new modes of viewing. 

I made a point to discuss broadcast network shows in “From Beats to Arcs” and avoided focusing on the more prestigious premium cable dramas like The Sopranos, which seemed in some ways to differ in narrative form. Their lack of commercials, shorter seasons, and apparent absence of industrial constraints often make them appear altogether different from network serials, which by contrast sometimes look quite formulaic. I emphasized commercial network fare in order to appreciate its aesthetic achievements in the face of widespread denigration. The network/cable dichotomy is often oversold, even more now than ten years ago, and can function as much to affirm conservative taste distinction as to identify two sets of conventions.* But the differences reveal that some forms of serialized TV storytelling work according to their own constraints and opportunities, which we can appreciate by looking at one exemplar of the cable style of the past decade: Mad Men, which ran from 2007 and is ending later this year.

Like any television show, Mad Men is the product of extensive collaboration, but its creative authorship is strongly attributed to the showrunner Matthew Weiner, whose previous work included both network comedies and The Sopranos. As a prestige product adding luster to the basic cable channel AMC’s brand identity, Mad Men draws on the cachet of premium cable HBO, whose original dramas have set a standard for artistry in television. It follows the HBO style in many ways.

What is the effect of episodes having no clearly marked acts? Acts in conventional TV storytelling build toward endings. In many instances, the break to commercial comes at the moment of greatest tension and uncertainty. Visual and musical techniques amplify these moments. A need to bring the drama to such a point four or more times in an hour produces patterns of rising action, raised stakes, complication and development. By ignoring the need for such moments, Mad Men perversely calls attention to the interruptive quality of commercial breaks. Perhaps a more ideal viewing situation is a binge on DVDs or streaming video. When viewing this way it is impossible to tell where the commercials would have appeared. And perhaps by refusing to adapt to the convention of interruption, Weiner signals his desire for autonomy from commercialism, adding authority to his creative identity.

And yet there is still pattern and rhythm in Mad Men’s episodes. Many of them introduce a new character, client, or situation in the first few scenes, leading up to a series of further events, some of which are resolved within the hour, and some of which provide material for further storytelling. An episode might be based around a trip to California or the development of a new campaign to be pitched at a meeting. Many episodes build toward parties, whether at home, in the office, or in another location. In the fourth-season episode “Waldorf Stories,” the Clio awards are first mentioned in the expository scenes, and later the contingent from the ad agency wins their Clio and faces implications and consequences of the characters’ drunkenness after the ceremony. This pattern is not so different from less prestigious shows like Revenge typically building up to their third- or fourth-act parties with their confrontations and revelations. 

While, unlike HBO, AMC is advertising-supported and breaks the episodes of Mad Men into segments between commercial breaks, the episodes are clearly written and shot without these pauses in mind. Like many cable series, a season consists not of 22 or more episodes as remains typical on broadcast networks, but thirteen (the seventh season has fourteen, divided into two halves of seven). These two conventions of the cable drama, the absence of breaks and the shorter season, are both products of their own commercial logic. Success might not be defined as much by how many viewers watch a live airing, and audiences tend to be smaller though perhaps more desirable for their affluence. But unlike networks, cable channels earn income from cable or satellite providers per subscriber (“carriage fees”) and have an interest in being desirable both to consumers and cable and satellite companies. It would be an odd blunder to see cable channels, whether they are ad-supported or not, as somehow less commercial than broadcast networks.

Unlike many network shows, Mad Men’s beats tend to lack recapitulations of basic information. The subtle style of storytelling here avoids recapping, and rewards the audience for having paid close attention all along. For viewers who track the characters’ trajectories carefully over the seasons, there are pleasures in knowing what characters must be thinking without being reminded overtly. In the first few episodes of season three, the developments from the end of season two are never formally explained in dialog, and the control of Sterling Cooper by the British firm Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe is taken as understood. So many elements of the story work like this: you need to remember them. You need to remember that Don is Dick, that Peggy had Pete’s baby, that Joan was Roger’s mistress, and who knows what about whom. Occasionally, at moments of heightened drama and as payoff to a long series of episodes of development, one character learns another character’s story, as happens at the end of season two with Peggy telling Pete that she had his child and gave the baby away, and at the end of season three with Betty learning of Don’s past identity and family history. At these moments characters narrate their secrets in dialog, and the audience is granted the pleasure or pain of witnessing the characters’ reactions to deeply meaningful news. But the ordinary recapping in dialog scene-by-scene and episode-by-episode is absent. 

While it might be tempting to see this as an aesthetic advantage, perhaps we can also see tradeoffs. The more obvious style of beats that introduce new information while reminding the audience of old information produces its own pleasures. The Mad Men style, while more obscure, emphasizes unspoken thematic or symbolic meaning often as a complement to more action-oriented plot developments. And by saving the repetition of key plot information for so many episodes, it boosts their impact. The dedicated, attentive viewer is rewarded for their insight and interpretive work, and their long-term investment in a slowly, elegantly unfolding canvas rich with historical and psychological insight and attention to detail in the show’s mise en scene.

Network and cable styles need not exist in hierarchy. Mad Men and “quality TV” more generally is addressed at more than one audience, and increasingly the afterlife of such shows is not so much cable reruns as DVD or Blu-ray discs, video on demand, and streaming services like Netflix. In all of these secondary distribution outlets, viewers often watch many episodes in rapid succession, rendering recapping somewhat superfluous. The network drama is also addressed at this market, but its live audience (the audience for what Netflix's CEO calls “linear TV”) is still most crucial to the business model of the broadcast networks who sell audiences to advertisers. AMC’s business model is more complicated, and more than the networks, it has an interest in burnishing its brand identity. AMC’s reputation as a source of high-quality original programs, which Mad Men established, helped its clout in negotiations over carriage fees with cable providers, which ultimately increased its revenue from subscriber fees. Many observers saw putting Mad Men on as a way for AMC to become the next HBO, a cable channel with “brand buzz,” as Anthony N. Smith argues. Mad Men, according to an industry trade paper, put AMC “on the map with ad buyers and cable operators.” Unlike the typical broadcast program, then, Mad Men has been a loss leader for the network putting it on, appealing as prestige programming to bring benefits in addition to revenue from advertisements during breaks between segments. Its value is not equal only to the revenue its has earned from advertising, which does not cover the program’s costs. Mad Men is a product not of a less commercial production context, merely of a different one.

As for the macro units of the narrative, the unity absent from many seasons of network TV is much stronger in a shorter cable season. This is evident from the heavy marketing and promotion at the debut of each new season, and from the packaging of the show, like many other upscale cable series, in DVD and Blu-ray box sets and iTunes and Amazon downloads by season for sale to consumers. The logic of the aftermarket in TV distribution is strongly invested in seasons as a unit of narrative consumption and of meaning. Mad Men, like any show, is produced a season at a time. The writers break the story into thirteen episodes, seeing a shape for the story in advance, a task more likely in a thirteen-episode season than in a longer form.

A season of Mad Men forms a well-defined arc. Season three, for instance, has a strong dimension of narrative unity as the intersecting stories of Don and the Draper family, the agency, and the other key characters (particularly Roger, Pete, Joan, and Peggy) have patterns of rising action, complication, and climax. When watching the season finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” many of the threads of the plot are revealed in the significance they might not have had all along. We see the story of the family’s breakdown and Betty’s impending marriage to Henry; the agency’s struggles suffering under foreign control, only to break away in establishing a new firm; Peggy’s effort to assert her independence in her new professional role and be taken seriously by the men, until finally she is recognized (and tells Roger she won’t get him coffee); Pete’s business acumen being seldom rewarded until he is chosen over his rival Ken to join the new firm; and Joan’s return to the agency after her absence, having suffered from Greg’s failure to be named chief surgical resident, which showed the danger of a woman’s fortunes being tied up in her husband’s. (Roger’s conflict with his ex-wife and daughter after marrying the much younger Jane, culminating in the matching trauma of the Kennedy assassination and his daughter’s wedding on the same day, happens in the penultimate episode.) One of the effects of watching the season-ending episode is regarding the previous twelve installments as moments leading up to the climactic plot developments: the Drapers’ failure to keep their family together and the agency breaking off on its own. So many of the points along the way (such as the introduction of the at-first mysterious characters of Conrad Hilton and Henry Francis) were in anticipation of these events, which then push us forward into season four as we are introduced to a new office space for the firm with new characters, a new family for Betty, a new apartment for Don, new clients to pitch, and a new set of narrative questions to be answered over thirteen more hours.

One way Mad Men and shows like it have much in common with conventional TV network dramas is in the unity of their episodes. Despite a fair bit of open-endedness, a typical Mad Men has strong coherence both in its plot and its theme. Episode titles convey, perhaps obliquely, not just a key moment of plot made into an abstract for the story, but often an allusion suggesting deeper meanings: “Babylon,” “The Wheel,” “The Gold Violin,” “Meditations in an Emergency,” “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” “Tomorrowland,” “Lady Lazarus,” “The Monolith.” Sometimes questions raised in the early scenes of an episode are answered by the closing credits, but just as often they are deferred, as is typical of serial narratives. The third season episode “The Arrangements” is a good example of Man Men’s episodic unity. The episode’s heaviest moment is the death of Betty’s father Eugene, presaged by one scene in which he shows her the arrangements of the title for what to do in the event of his passing, and another in which he gives his grandson a dead German soldier’s helmet he brought home from the First World War. But there are two other storylines about relations between parents and their adult children that resonate with the death of Grandpa Gene: Peggy disappoints her mother by moving to Manhattan with a new roommate, and upsets her mother further by giving the gift of a television set (as if it can substitute for a daughter’s presence). And the agency takes on a new client, a rich kid who wants to make jai-alai into a major sport in the US (clearly folly), and whose exasperated father is a friend of the agency’s founder Bert Cooper. The satisfaction of “The Arrangements,” a combination of episodic and long-arcing storytelling, is in some ways not much different from any serialized narrative, no matter how distinctive the upscale cable style of this particular program.

There is no natural reason why a serialized television series would have episodes with strong coherence and unity. It is a convention of production and reception, and it would seem no less vital to cable than to network series. Episodic unity works well in a system where episodes are the unit of consumption, whether in weekly doses or more rapidly. It works well in a system of production for managing labor and resources. Whether the unity is of story or theme, this convention works to the advantage of both the audience and the television industry. Episodes fit into patterns of both media work and audience leisure.

It is tempting to see the creative autonomy of quality TV writers and producers as a value in opposition to the compromised commercialism of traditional broadcasting. But it also functions within the capitalist media system as an appeal in its own right, a selling point to a desirable market segment and a means of product differentiation. And like all creative agency under capitalism, this autonomy always works in tension with the imperative of economic productivity. No action is unconstrained. The art of the cable drama is not greater or lesser than that of the network drama, and perhaps not even less bound by convention, but it is a somewhat different form as a product of its own industrial circumstances.

*Network and cable are simplifications, as both categories admit a fair bit of variety within, and Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming online venues for programming overlap with cable without being traditional TV channels.
Previously on zigzigger: recapping s4e1,s4e2, s4e3, s4e4, and after that I gave up. 


Three Flow Columns

I contributed three columns to Flow over the past few months. Flow signs up writers for three at a time, so these could be written as a set focused on a particular theme. I didn't write them that way on purpose, but looking back I do see a common thread.

The first, published in November, is When Television Marries Computer. This draws from research I have been doing on the connection between early video games, early home computers, and TV. It concludes that the convergence of television and digital technology has always been seen as a way of improving TV, drawing on the enduring status of television as bad object.

The second, published in February, is Immersive Media: Whose Fantasy? This is a report from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which I attended for the first time in January as part of the IRTS Industry/Faculty Seminar. I was struck at the trade show by the ubiquity of "immersive" talk and wanted to poke around at it. I see this as a way of the media and electronics industries both to sell the idea that their products will win over consumers.

And the final column, just published last week, is The Celebrity Sex Tape: Where Porn Meets Reality TV. This is an analysis of a form of media I've had in mind to write something about since the third season of The Hills, when Lauren's good reputation is threatened by a dirty sex tape rumor. I used the opportunity of contributing to Flow to express these thoughts, particularly the idea that celebrity culture appeals to straight men too and how that works.

The theme I think these rather different brief essays have in common is fantasy. In all three, I think we learn something important about media forms and technologies by thinking about whose fantasies they aim to fulfill, and what these fantasies are really about. This interest is also central to the argument of Video Revolutions and my work in progress on early games. Fantasies of the sort discussed in my Flow columns ultimately concern relations of power, whether between media industries and consumers or between conceptions of social identity.

One further thought while I'm blogging about these columns. The guidelines Flow gives writers includes a word limit of 1500, which sometimes feels arbitrary and frustrating. On the internet there is no scarce resource of paper or ink. But at the end of this cycle I find myself grateful for that artificial constraint, which can focus your writing. It's a productive exercise to see what can be done with a short form, and what is better left out.


Video Revolutions

Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium is a short book I wrote about the history of video from the early days of television to the present. It's around 30,000 words long and is selling for $9 in paperback and even less for the Kindle version, which will be released in April. I have always loved cute little paperbacks that you can read in an hour or two and I hope this will fit that description. For instance, last spring I spent a day doing research at the Chicago Public Library, taking the Hiawatha Express down in the morning and returning that evening. On the southbound leg I read Theodore Roszak's From Satori to Silicon Valley, and coming north I read Peter Krämer's BFI Classic on 2001. There is a special satisfaction in reading a whole book in a single sitting, absorbing all of its argument and examples at once. This works if you download it as an e-book too, of course, though I don't know if an e-book gets to be cute.

I began to research this new work without knowing what I would like to do with it. While reading 1970s popular press sources about video games, I noticed that video had a number of connotations at the time that suggested being not only a novel use of television, but an alternative to it. Meanwhile, I had been trying to ascertain why video games came to be called that rather than other names they have gone by: TV or tele-games, electronic games, computer games, digital games, etc. So off on a detour I went, looking up uses of video going back to its origins as a name for television in the 1930s. At some point I thought an essay on the history of video would help answer some questions about the history of the medium, which has often been considered by media historians and critics but seldom taking a very long view. (For instance, books about video art or movies on video or video stores tend to stick to their more specific areas.) I started to take notes and conceptualize this history as a series of phases defined in part by video's relation to TV and other media, and in part by developments in video technology.

When I wrote the first draft of what took shape as an extended essay, I thought I might try to publish it as an e-book, a single or digital short. Perhaps you could call it a mini-monograph, though I don't think that's such a great term. A friend has suggested academic novella, which accounts for length but might suggest another genre. Whatever we call it, I was excited that CUP was interested, and a bit surprised that the press wanted to publish it as a paperback as well as an e-book. I imagined that the new digital format would free me to write something of unusual length, in a somewhat experimental format; conventional publication wasn't the initial goal. I'm surprised now how much picturing the writing as a physical object, as printed on pages bound between a cover, changes the way I think of the work.

For the cover, I suggested the wonderful art of Hollis Brown Thornton, who produces nostalgic images of old media like video game carts and VHS cassettes. I'm thrilled that he agreed to this use.

Part of the story the book tells is visual, and this Pinterest board includes many of the illustrations in Video Revolutions as well as other related images. I have also posted many of these images over the past months and years at my tumblr.

Below are the catalog description and blurbs. And here is an interview I did with Hope Leman at Critical Margins.

Since the days of early television, video has been an indispensable part of culture, society, and moving-image media industries. Over the decades, it has been an avant-garde artistic medium, a high-tech consumer gadget, a format for watching movies at home, a force for democracy, and the ultimate, ubiquitous means of documenting reality. In the twenty-first century, video is the name we give all kinds of moving images. We know it as an adaptable medium that bridges analog and digital, amateur and professional, broadcasting and recording, television and cinema, art and commercial culture, and old media and new digital networks.

In this history, Michael Z. Newman casts video as a medium of shifting value and legitimacy in relation to other media and technologies, particularly film and television. Video has been imagined as more or less authentic or artistic than movies or television, as more or less democratic and participatory, as more or less capable of capturing the real. Techno-utopian rhetoric has repeatedly represented video as a revolutionary medium, promising to solve the problems of the past and the present—often the very problems associated with television and the society shaped by it—and to deliver a better future. Video has also been seen more negatively, particularly as a threat to movies and their culture. This study considers video as an object of these hopes and fears and builds an approach to thinking about the concept of the medium in terms of cultural status.

"Video Revolutions is a stimulating and satisfying intellectual tour and argument, chiefly for Newman’s ability to encompass often disparate case studies within a single historical lens." — William Boddy, Baruch College, CUNY

"Michael Newman has carved out a fascinating intellectual space between television and cinema as they are traditionally understood, to illuminate both as well as to explore the new ground that the concept of 'video' established in the media imaginary. This is a concise and impressive work that should be on the reading list of all scholars of media and contemporary culture." — Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Newman does for video what Lynn Spigel did for television: he ‘makes room’ for it in an accessible and compelling critique that shows how video has become an integral part of our lives. Video Revolutions is a book that is long overdue." — Michael Curtin, co-author, The American Television Industry


To all the VCRs I loved before

Magnavox RIP

A moment of passage into adulthood occurred for me upon the purchase, charged to a MasterCard not billed to my mom and dad, of a piece of consumer electronics. It was a Panasonic VHS deck from a Nobody Beats the Wiz in downtown Manhattan, either the cheapest or next-to-cheapest kind of VCR you could buy in 1994, in the ballpark of $50. I was sharing a 2-bedroom near the Sheridan Square stop of the 1/9 train. The console TV set in our living room was a hand-me-down from my grandmother, who that fall was being moved from an apartment in Brooklyn to a nursing home in New Jersey. We didn't have cable, though it didn't stop me from watching through terrible reception some of my favorite shows of the 90s, particularly Homicide and My So-Called Life. Mainly I watched movies rented from Kim's, a place that ought to have been preserved for exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kim's organized its tapes by director, which is really all you need to know about that VCR and what I did with it in the 1990s.

When we gave up the apartment, I kept the VCR and my friend and roommate Matthew kept the red formica and chrome table and chairs that we had bought at a flea market around the same time. Today I might rather have the furniture. At the time I needed that VCR more than I needed even one chair.

Before I succumbed to the pleasure of my own cable TV subscription at the end of the decade, when I was living in Madison, I used to get friends to record things. Everyone was talking about Buffy so I asked someone to tape it for me. Felicity came on afterward so she gave me that too to fill up the available two hours, and I loved them both, they were the highlight of every week. As I recall I was already watching Ally McBeal and the World Series, so I guess Fox came over the air but not the WB. Maybe I had Classical Film Theory on the nights when Buffy and Felicity were on and didn't know how to program the VCR. Now, of course, any episode of these shows can be summoned from the cloud in a moment. Maybe that's a loss as well as a gain.

Soon after our relationship began, Elana acquired a second VCR so that she could tape two shows at once. An exuberant extravagance, but an easily justifiable one. Within a couple of years I went from no cable and a VCR used mainly to catch up on the history of world cinema to cable and two VCRs used to record current network shows, as well as old stuff on cable (Elana watched Happy Days recorded off Nick at Nite while eating breakfast; I studied the TCM schedule to plan my taping). Elana taught me never to watch TV shows live. You save fifteen minutes per hour by recording them and skipping the ads, which adds up if you're a busy grad student.

Where is all of this hardware now, these objects of magical fetishistic delight? The VCRs are long gone. Two out of three television sets I watched while living on my own in the 90s (one from New York, two from Madison) are gone. The third TV set, a 1980s Sony Trinitron from Elana's parents' family room, sits in our basement and is used for Atari VCS games and the very rare playing of a Bob the Builder VHS cassette. Over the years we have cycled through numerous rectangular metal and plastic boxes, which we increasingly treat as short-term items, like the reusable-disposable Ziploc containers in which we pack cut up strawberries for kids' lunches.

There is a 1946 RCA Victor television set on a table in our dining room, a museum piece. It belonged to Elana's grandparents. People always ask if it works and we shrug. If it did work, what would you want to do with it? Would you sit in front of it to watch Orange is the New Black on its tiny black and white screen? I wonder if any such thing of our times would end up in the home of our grandchildren. It didn't take long for the blueberry iMac and the Razr phone, both of which I really wanted, to seem boring, out, even embarrassing to look at.

As part of an ongoing uncluttering project (with apologies to Glengarry Glen Ross, one must Always Be Uncluttering), I took a trunkfull of old hardware to the Department of Public Works on the most recent electronics recycling day. Next to an enormous widescreen CRT set left by someone else, which is probably in perfect working order and not much more than ten years old, I stacked a stereo receiver, laserdisc player, two DVD players, three DVRs (all SD, two TiVo's), a laptop computer, and a video game console. Next to that I left a big plastic bag filled with cables. I was a bit reclutant to type that list, which seems to amount to a confession of throwing money into the fire. But most of these items had been unused for more than five years, and some more like ten. None of them are worth much at all on eBay. Some of the items work, some don't, and none of them were going to be of any use to us.

And then there are the fetish objects I am too reclutant to part with, a shelf cluttered with phones, iPods, cameras, and their chargers and cables. These tell a story and I don't feel ready to give them up, especially when they don't take up much space. But they're basically just marking time on death row. Once in awhile I do an exercise in a New Media class where I bring in "old" technologies, like a film camera and a videocassette and a clickwheel iPod, and ask the students to describe the object imagining it's the latest thing. It's useful to have some old things around for times when I want to make believe they're new.

We took responsibility for the disposal of our e-waste, but we're middle-aged homeowners, and we fear one day that we might have a basement like those of our dear parents, home to a lifetime of accumulated stuff. If there weren't so many other moments vying for the honor, I might say recycling such an impressive collection of hardware is another life passage, now into middle age, but really I just wish it were so. Meeting a lawyer to sign a will and buying life insurance already served that function. Still, giving or throwing meaningful things away, like saying goodbye, can be a reminder that eventually you will have no want or need of persons or things. For me, anyway, these times feel ceremonial.

Others might experience such passages differently. On moving days over the past few years, particularly in the campusy neighborhood near us, I have been paying special attention to the presence of so many CRT television sets abandoned by the curb alongside rotting sofas and broken chairs. Sometimes the TV has been damaged, it often seems intentionally, perhaps with a hole poked in the rear. Goodwill sells CRT television sets these days for 99 cents. Ninety-nine cents for a television. That's less than they charge for a hardcover book. People still want televisions, just not that kind. Maybe there is some pleasure in destroying and rejecting the old, obsolete, abject tube, in treating it like your shit. I have not felt this. Yet I have become fascinated by the ugly heaps left behind by college kids, hoping when I bike by a dilapidated sectional or a mound of old plastic shopping bags filled with leftovers of a few years of undergrad living that there will be a CRT set face down on the lawn for me to photograph and post on twitter.

While disgusted by the environmental and social and economic hazards likely to be caused by such fast cycles of planned obsolescence and overheated consumerism, what seems more interesting (to me anyway) are the emotional ups and downs of living amidst such an abundance of new and rapidly aging stuff. People want their e-things so badly, then they take pleasure in their destruction and abandonment so soon afterward -- unless they cling to them and refuse to let them go even after finding newer, better e-things to replace them, as I do with my iPods and flip phones. When I asked a class of 20 students to leave their smart devices on the table in the front of the room for 45 minutes one day last semester (I put mine there too), people got twitchy and felt the absence of those palm-sized bricks they keep by their flesh even as they sleep. In a few years those objects will no longer be anyone's whole life any more. They will have cracked screens and dead batteries, maybe they'll be dumped by the curb, maybe they'll be responsibly dropped in a cardboard recycling bin at Best Buy, if that is still a place you can go to. Whatever their fate, they will have been consumed, digested, and excreted.

For a long time, the future-minded among us have predicted an end of old technologies like paper and more recently discs and other physical wares. The trend now in electronics, particularly where software is concerned, is to move from objects you purchase and own to services you subscribe to -- from atoms to bits, from discs to the cloud. Maybe this will mean our homes will be less burdened by accumulations of stuff, though I doubt it. The consumer economy requires more stuff, ever more stuff, not less. More books were published last year, a time of e-reader revolution, than the one before. And we still like our stuff.

Elana and I have been watching thirtysomething off and on for a few years, and until recently were doing so using the four box sets of DVDs on the shelf. Then we noticed that the series is also streaming on Amazon Prime, which we access through a Roku to watch on the television set in the living room. For the fourth season, we switched from the DVDs to streaming, partly because Amazon's HD picture resolution is better (though the image is also cropped), but mostly because we're too lazy and tired to deal with the discs. And yet the thought of getting rid of thirtysomething DVD box sets because the show is also available online strikes me as simply outlandish. They could disappear from Amazon for all we know. And I still want them, can't stop wanting them. These are the objects about which, like Alien in Spring Breakers, I say:

This is the fuckin' American dream. This is my fuckin' dream, y'all!
All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit!
Look at my sheeyit! This ain't nuttin', I got ROOMS of this shit!


Blogging Then and Now

t-shirt for sale at Target in 2006, from my flickr

When I was hired to my current job, two full professors in my department asked to meet with me on a summer afternoon to discuss expectations I would face in pursuit of tenure. My new senior colleagues encouraged me to publish my research in well-regarded peer-reviewed journals, and discouraged me from writing a blog. I don't know if they knew about my blogs (I doubt they did then); this was probably standard advice for junior faculty in 2007. If I were them, I probably would have said the same to a new hire. I remember thinking but not saying: of course I will blog, this won't stop me. But I will also do everything else I would need to do to succeed in this job.

Now I have tenure (official word came last week from the Chancellor), and here is this blog, infrequently updated and somewhat neglected. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, I've been practicing slow blogging. A sabbatical is coming in Fall 2013 and occasionally I wonder if this will be a time to get back into regular--maybe even daily--blogging. But that's pretty unlikely. I'm writing a book about video games in the 70s and early 80s and I'd rather do that than blog frequently. I know some people can mix blogging into a regular routine of other kinds of writing, but I'm not that kind of writer. If I choose to blog (as I am doing today), I am postponing something else. Once in awhile I like to write for the blog, but I like other kinds of writing more.

Another reason why I don't see myself blogging regularly during my sabbatical is that blogging ain't what it used to be. One thing people might have found unfamiliar if not offputting about blogging in the middle of the aughts when I was newly hired was that blogs were boundary-crossing in both form and content. People mixed personal and professional. They'd get first-persony and confessional even in efforts at engaging with intellectual concerns. They'd make the blog as much about process as product. No one was editing or reviewing your blog, so it had a raw immediacy missing from more formal writing. Now among media scholars, there isn't much of this kind of thing going on. Facebook and Twitter offer me more community and less permanence and official presence. A frequently updated personal blog on varied topics mixing personal and professional interests under my real name might seem weird today, and I don't know how comfortable I'd be writing this way.


I began this blog around the same time as I was hired as an assistant professor, at the end of 2006. But I had been blogging regulalry already; In 2006 I was not just starting a blog, but turning over a new leaf. Zigzigger was an effort to make a professional identity online apart from my earlier contributions to the blogosphere. At my earlier blog I went by MZN, which isn't exactly a pseudonym. But a web search for my name doesn't produce that old blog in the results and I still think of it as semi-secret, though lots of people know about it. Zigzigger was among other things an effort at SEO.

The impetus to begin that blog was to share experiences of cooking things I was excited about at a time when I was getting into food and its preparation. But I imagined that the blog would not focus on one topic only, so the name I gave it really on a whim was Haverchuk, after a character on a TV show. (Misspelled.)  I would never have linked Haverchuk to my full name, because then my scholarly identity and my identity who writes about cooking on the internet would become confused. My graduate school advisor might read about these personal experiences, which I didn't want to happen.

The pseudonymity and anonymity of many scholars' blogs in the mid-aughts is evidence that my way of thinking was quite common among grad students and faculty. We had something to lose in blogging this way. The blog was not official scholarly publishing, and didn't count for anything official (you wouldn't put a blog on your CV). As with social networking sites, a discourse of legitimacy surrounded blogging: spending time that was way less legitimate than spending time at work. It might actually be worse than wasting time if you were doing this while being paid to do your work. Then it would be stealing time, and your writing would make you a kind of web outlaw. At any rate your public performance of time spent blogging was potentially rebellious and exciting, but also could attract unwanted negative attention. And the content of many academic blogs in the mid-aughts could be the kind of things you'd avoid saying in public under your own name. People were fired back then for things they wrote online -- dooced. A high-profile blogger was denied tenure. Academics blogged about their teachers and students and colleagues. One popular blog of the time was called Waiter Rant, in which an NYC restaurant server dished on his customers. Dozens of academic blogs were basically Grad Student or Adjunct or Prof (most likely Assistant Prof) Rant. Bloggers confessed their insecurities and grudges. The tone was confiding and revealing.

Pseudonymity was only part of the warrant for writing this way. It also helped that your blog was not supposed to count, that it was shoptalk and scuttlebut rather than official work. If it was supposed to count, you would use your blog to publish first drafts of scholarly writing, reports from conferences, volleys in academic debates, updates on your accomplishments, etc. Your blog wasn't your personal brand or your home page or your "web presence." If it was the product of wasted or stolen time, or just your personal time, a blog had a different kind of value and function.

As for me, while I might blog about the academic life, in 2005 I didn't have that in mind very much even though I admired the pseudonymous academic blogs. I had just finished my PhD but was underemployed as a trailing spouse and uncertain about job prospects. We had a one year-old son, who I looked after half of the working week. The rest of the time he was in day care and I taught one or two classes and worked on research and writing. I had gotten into cooking partly as an escape from academic work, when I was avoiding my dissertation and feeling like I might not even finish the degree. Rather than force myself to write a few hundred words in which I wasn't sure what I wanted to say, I would bake bread from my own repellent sourdough starter. I'd experiment with Pad Thai techniques (what kind of tamarind product? what technique for cooking the noodles? ketchup, really?). I wasn't about to blog about an academic identity crisis, but I was eager to share adventures in trying new ingredients and dishes, and to have an outlet for another kind of writing. If I cooked something that excited me I wanted to show it to others. I blogged about trips to the farmer's market, and experiments making ice cream with cardamom or rice or green chiles, often while Leo napped. Eventually things started to work out in my work life and my cooking became less of an avoidance ritual and more a routine of feeding the family. I was offered a tenure-track job, got a book contract, published some essays, taught my classes, worked toward tenure, etc. I continued to cook pretty much every day, but I stopped buying new ingredients at Asian groceries just to figure them out, and I lost interest in the Food Network (which was less and less cooking-focused anyway). I also stopped blogging about food.

I also mostly gave up reading food blogs, which had given me some sense of community. I got to know some interesting people through Haverchuk, including a handful I have met IRL and who continue to be friends online. They're also academics, some of whom engage with food as a topic of study, and others like me who maintain multiple interests. I haven't made friends like these simply through Zigzigger, though I suppose there are people who have become friends who have gotten to know me partly through the blog and partly through other encounters.

I never had a pseudonymous blog about academic life and issues related to teaching and research and the academy, but I read many of them, such as Bitch PhD (gone, it seems) and Dr. Crazy. They were inspiring and influential, and their authors were like celebrities. It seemed like you could say whatever you want and people would pay attention to you at the moment you said it.


Nothing stays the same for very long on the internet. Blogging changed for many reasons, for better and for worse. This isn't meant to be a naive lamentation that the good old days are gone and forgotten, never to return. But here are some changes I don't feel entirely positive about.

1. Academic blogs, particularly in film & TV & media studies, became established as important, official ways of circulating ideas. While avoiding sounding too academic (the original guidlines for writing for Antenna, for instance, specified this avoidance), they're still writing in a way that obviously cares about being taken seriously and seeming legitimate so that they can count. Some of the influential senior scholars in the field took to blogging, and rarely used the format for the kinds of first-person, confessional writing that was part of the mid-aughts blog style. I'm thinking for instance of Jenkins and Bordwell & Thompson, but there are many others. As blogs become more legitimate and serve these more official functions, they seem less appropriate for the more casual, sloppy, first-drafty ponderings that made the format seem vital in the first place. I do value the blog as a way of circulating ideas quickly to a potentially broad audience and without the filter of peer review. I like the community that scholarly blogs offer us. But let's recognize what kind of writing this is and is not, what is gained and lost with the legitimacy of academic blogging.

2. Personal blogs by academics are more rare than before. The outlets for this kind of online writing are now much more often Facebook and Twitter. In these places, writing can seem more private (Facebook) and less thought through and developed (Twitter). We think of Twitter as particularly brief and fragmentary, but Facebook statuses are  quick and dirty too (sometimes when I have to click to continue reading a FB status I think, really?). Both sites are less about writing than blogs typically are. They are more like conversation, and the discourse is very oral-culture, and leans heavily on links, photos, and videos. These are all great things, but again, they're taking the place of blogs and replacing one kind of discourse with various others.

3. Pseudonymous blogging has withered as real offline identities become more of a norm and as society becomes more accustomed to oversharing, both of which serve the commercial ambitions of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. If I were a graduate student now I probably wouldn't care as much about my advisor reading my cooking blog posts, because everyone shares their shit these days. Definitely more than they did in 2005. The anonymous, pseudonymous, open-secret pseudonymous, pseudo-pseudonymous authorship of blogs permitted a voice of confessional intimacy that I just don't see that much of any more. Consider vaguebooking, the custom on Facebook of making oblique references to emotional ups and downs, and of life events of some consequence being kept under wraps. If we weren't writing under our full, real-world names on Facebook, for an audience of high school friends, distant relatives, parents and children, students and teachers, work friends and friends of friends, would people be doing so much vaguebooking?

When I started this more scholarly and official blog, I was reacting against what I perceived to be threats to my scholarly identity that would come from the type of mid-aughts blogging that I now miss. But I was also thinking positively in terms of how I could share writing related to my research and teaching interests. What didn't seem feasible at the time, as a beginning assistant professor, was to combine these modes of writing in one place. It still doesn't seem very feasible, even as I have earned tenure and no longer worry so much about other people's judgement. I would not have considered turning Haverchuk into a mixture of food writing and film and TV studies writing. From my present vantage, I see this blog as a product of my 2006-7 self. This has been an assistant professor, tenure-track blog. If I had been 7 years along my career trajectory in 2007 who knows what I might have done in the way of a blog.


When skeptics and naysayers want to trivialize the way people share their experiences of everyday life online, a favorite example involves eating. "I don't need to know what you had for lunch." Well, I am often happy to know, especially if you made it yourself or ate it someplace cool. And I have long considered this kind of common-sense TMI reaction to carry a strong dose of gendered distinction between what matters and what is deemed to be beneath the speaker. Food and its preparation, particularly in the more ordinary day-by-day experiences of eating, is trivial because it's associated with women and domestic labor. Many things that matter less than eating (after all, you need to eat and probably take pleasure from it regularly) are given greater cultural legitimacy if they are the interests of straight adult males, e.g., sports. Which isn't to knock sports - I like sports too, as both a participant and spectator. But let's recognize the patriarchal privilege that makes sports talk seem legitimate and food talk -- "what you had for lunch" talk -- not merely uninteresting but the epitome of uninterestingness.

There's a big exception here, which is that the masculinized upscale culture of restaurant chefs and "gourmet" home cooks is ok. Men and women experience food cultures differently. For women cooking can be a creative and professional pursuit, but it's always also tied to their gender role as nurturer and caretaker in the home. For men cooking is often seen more as a hobby or special interest, is more often professionalized (even men who don't work for a living in a kitchen might be called chef when cooking at home), and is tied more to masculinized notions of virtuosity and accomplishment. Men want praise for their cooking, and in many families their presence in the kitchen is a special occasion. I have experienced so many times the affirmations men get for domestic work that is merely expected of women.

Because my identity was only three initials on my old blog, it wasn't obvious to many of my readers who I was. I often wrote not only about grocery shopping and cooking but also mentioned looking after a young child. Some people assumed I was a woman or weren't sure of my gender. It wasn't exactly "on the internet no one knows you're a dog," but the pseudonymity allowed for a more fluid presentation of identity than we get on Facebook. Maybe if I had been writing about mainly dudely food topics like grilling or molecular gastronomy I would have come across more dudely. While some of my posts were about unglamorous dishes like tuna casserole, fried rice, and turkey pot pie, I also dabbled in kitchen experiments with things like aspic and organ meats and unusual ice cream ingredients. Some of this might have had a male kitchen-workshop flavor, but on the whole the food blog world is quite strongly gendered feminine, and most of the people I got to know there were women. What I was doing wasn't too different from what they were doing.

There's a similar distinction we can make between more feminized personal blogs (and tweets, status updates, etc.) and more masculinized professional ones, the ones in which daily life and its feminized concens (dressing, eating, care of self and others) is minimized and official discourse about stuff that counts is made central. The shift away from personal academic blogs toward more parascholarly writing was a boon for scholarly discourse, and I don't think anyone, even those who looked on skeptically in the mid-aughts, would deny that now. But it came at the expense of another kind of writing, which is often devalued because it is personal.

My old blog and this one reflect this development. The mid-aughts blog, often personal (though rarely very intimate or confessional) and centered around food, was not concerned at all with my scholarly identity or with participating in the kind of discourse that might ever count, though I did often talk about TV and media. This kind of blog, on the other hand, participates in a development in the neoliberal academy in which we are all concerned with the establishment and maintenance of an entreprenurial personal brand. Even if people don't take blogs posts as seriously as journal articles and books (a debatable point - people assign blog posts in class and cite them in scholarly work, and many people want them to count), these web self-publishing exercises are serving our professional goals by fashioning and building reputations and networks. We might need to do that in our present environment, but the personal, intimate, confessional, and yes feminized discourse of many mid-aughts blogs was also serving people's needs. It would be nice to be able to meet those too in longer or more open or less ephemeral forms of writing than Facebook statuses and tweets. It would be nice if some of the blurred-boundaries, not-counting qualities of the mid-aughts blogs were more available to us in today's and tomorrow's academic blogs.


This post was inspired in part by reading another reflection on scholarly blogging in the aughts at Slaves of Academe, one of my favorites from several years back. It was a pleasure to see a new Slaves post appear in my RSS Reader.

Haverchuk was active from July 2005 to March 2007. Revisiting some of my writing from that time gives me the urge to take the blog offline. But some of the posts make me feel other things, related to what my life and the world were like then. I also used the blog as an impetus to learn about photography so that my food shots didn't look horrible, and some of these posts have (if I do say so) interesting photos by a novice with a point-and-shoot camera we bought to take pictures of our baby. So here are a few of my entries that I can imagine you reading without feeling totally embarrassed.

What's Haverhuck

Old Food 

Cornbread turkey pot pie 

Eggs in aspic 

Office doors

Fun with schmaltz 


Egg ice cream

And some YouTube videos of July, 2006, when YouTube itself was just so incredible. Lots of links to videos no longer there :(


Tumblrs of Note

The optimal tumblr experience is the rapid river of content that carries you along if you are following at least several hundred regularly updating accounts. Unlike tweets, the other great river of the web, the good stuff in your tumblr dashboard is images, so you can ride this current without much need of the parts of your brain that process language, the better to admire exquisite celebrity physique and physiognomy and the deep truths conveyed only by GIFs. Some of the posts will be typographical or texty, and you will need your reading glasses to refer to captions if you’re not sure who that possibly-famous person is or what that subtitle says. Actually the captions are a big part of the effect of some of my favorite tumblrs, but as with photography more generally, words are generally secondary even if they do anchor an image’s meaning.
At first the metaphor of curation seemed so delightfully to capture the spirit of the linking web, and to distinguish it from the oversharing mode of confessional blog posts about cheese sandwiches and suchlike (for the record, I have always preferred reading about boring snacks and meals to many other topics, particularly liberal political ranting and the humiliations of air travel). Of course it is arrogant to describe clicking “reblog” on a photograph of the president with a water pistol in the language of art exhibits. (For one jaundiced take, here is The Awl.) The thing about curation is, if everyone gets to do it then the whole world is our museum. That doesn’t sound so terrible actually, but once the activity has passed into ordinariness the title loses its luster and makes us sound like d-bags for talking like that. I like sharing better than curating -- it expresses a spirit of generosity, but also hints at the egocentricity and self-regard fuelling so much of this activity. As in, “Thanks for sharing.” Could be a compliment or a put-down or a bit of both in that sincerely ironic mode of advanced hispterism. It also cuts us down to size a bit.

What I like in a tumblr is wit and verve, sensibility and personality, and expressions of appreciation. I like enthusiastic appreciation of many various things: television characters, baby zoo animals, bookshelves, abstract patterns, vinyl records, Polaroids from the set of Blade Runner, Anne Hathaway’s short hair, old magazines, wood paneling, donuts, VHS, one-sheets, runway models of the 80s and 90s, bicycles, fonts, black tights, Joe Biden. I like tumblr’s all-things-for-everyone, hodge-podgey eclecticism, the surprise awaiting every time I scroll down further into the bottomless page. Tumblr is all at once an adventure and a travelogue, a Dada slideshow, and a way of keeping tabs on Hollywood shooting and publicity schedules. It’s like going to the art, design, and photography sections of Barnes & Noble and paging through all the big books you’d never buy but wouldn’t mind to be given as gifts now and then, for the mid-century modern coffee table of your real estate porn fantasies. Now that channel surfing has been obviated by the program grid and the DVR, tumblr is a way of “seeing what’s on,” minus the ads and infomercials and cable news blowhards.

All of which is to say: if you work involves a computer connected to the internet, tumblr is a pleasurable way of not working.

What follows are some tumblrs you ought to follow. If you’re not into tumblr already, though, I should explain that the experience of these sites is different in the dashboard than it is when you look at the individual page. You have to see the images in the context of the river, rather than all together and harmoniously thematic and coherent. You have to imagine each page jumbled up with all the others you follow. In this way, tumblr (like twitter) is very different from the “flow” of broadcasting and magazines, which is the product of decisions about organization and sequence. The aleatory nature of the river is part of tumblr’s magical effect, and you can’t see that without getting into the whole experience.

In my post on 2011 faves I recommended these tumblrs, most of which are still posting regularly:

unhappy hipsters




i love old magazines

this isn't happiness - my choice of them all, consistently high quality, a unique sensibility

nick drake

life magazine

bookshelf porn

hipster animals

dear photograph (as time goes on I'm finding the captions a little too schmaltzy for me, but it's still great)

nails and burgers

rides a bike

fuck yeah 1980s

slaughterhouse 90210

old video game ads

But there’s more!

Suri's burn book, which I think is an inside joke I don't totally get but still appreciate; the image above is from the top post at the moment, and the caption reads: "
Every morning, she waits to get dressed until she sees what I’m wearing. I’m over it."

FILMographies, like Dear Photograph but with movie locations

suicide blonde and bohemia, by a couple who post and reblog photos of celebrities, usually with some sensual or erotic quality

underground new york public library, people reading on the subway even in the e-reader age

Fuck Yeah, Wood Paneling! 

tgifreitag, eclectic and mesmerizing (I guess you could say the same for lots of these)

celebs like to eat, a good reminder that even very attractive people look bad in photos when they're putting food into their faces

old loves which I learned about thanks to @kristenwarner

fuck your noguchi coffee table 

the art of google books

awesome people reading

fuck yeah manuscripts

eye for trash and
Sierra OffLine, two tumblrs by media historians I'm also friends with elsewhere on the internet

celebrities on the subway

Of course you didn't need me to tell you about academic coach taylor

Or texts from hillary, which I miss


moving the still, a “GIF festival”

random juxtapositions in #gifandcircumstance


vazetti I like for the nostalgia

little plastic things, classic films

teen girl enthusiast

notororious gifs is very pop-culture-y

zbags, unusual black-and-white, old-looking animations, a big fave

tech noir, movies

movie splode, explosions in movies 

lunatic toons, crazytown old animated movies

I watch most of my reality TV in GIF form these days: reality tv gifs

whtebkgrnd and psykzz, two tumblrs of abstract gifs

Glitches (some of which are also GIFs):

year of the glitch is one of the best glitch blogs

glitch news

food mosh

glitch-hop (like food mosh but with hip-hop videos)

porn glitch

glitch gifs 


I have two tumblrs of my own: I post mainly things somewhat related to my research interests at fraktastic. I reblog GIFs at giferrific

So what are your favorites?