4/15/2014

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.

3/17/2014

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.

Description:
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

8/06/2013

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!



6/20/2013

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 

Tripe

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 :(

1/09/2013

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

photojojo

ummhello

murketing

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

GIFs:

moving the still, a “GIF festival”

random juxtapositions in #gifandcircumstance

gifhound

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?

11/13/2012

Wreck-It Ralph with the Boys



I assigned my Approaches to Media Studies grad class to do a 750-1000 word audience analysis based on participant observation and/or interview research. Earlier course assignments of similar scope were industry, textual, and discourse analyses. Not having studied audiences this way, I decided to complete the assignment myself.

***

On Saturday I went to see an afternoon show of Wreck-It Ralph with three eight year-old boys. One of them was my son Leo, and the others were classmates of his in the third grade of a suburban public school. This account of our outing considers a handful of themes. One is the status of moviegoing as something special. Another is the way in which adults and children experience stories differently. And a final idea is the social value of media in the context of everyday life.

I first became aware of Wreck-It Ralph from a commercial on one of the kid channels my sons watch in the morning and early evening. I told Leo I wanted to see it with him, and he and his friends evidently started talking about about it at school. Leo’s pleasure in seeing the movie, from what I could tell, was to a large extent social. It was an occasion for an outing with me and his friends, and would give him knowledge and experience that might be valuable among his peers.

We saw the movie at a theater where you sit behind a long table and servers take your order. Much of the pre-movie discussion concerned food and drink. Moviegoing authorizes going out for popcorn and french fries and sugary soft drinks with friends on a Saturday afternoon. We were seeing Wreck-It Ralph in 3D, so there was also some goofing around with the glasses. One kid pretended that an image from the screen was coming after him.

The feature began and we watched in silence. Aside from some food-related whispers, and slurping sounds from empty cups, I didn’t hear my companions during the movie. This was a contrast to before and after, when they talked loudly in the theater and the car.

When the lights came on and we stood while watching the credits, I asked if anyone liked the movie and everyone did. Some parts were a little scary, but no one seemed frightened at the end. All three found it really funny, and they quoted a few of the lines they liked, over and over and over.

“Why are you so freakishly tall?!”
“Why are you so freakishly annoying?!”
Repeat.

Later when I asked Leo what he enjoyed about going to movies with friends, he mentioned their repetition of this freakishly annoying bit. Of course, during the movie I was preoccupied with many thoughts that never would have crossed their minds. Like wracking my brain trying to figure out which actor voiced the kick-ass female avatar (it’s Jane Lynch). I’m not even sure these kids are aware of how animated films use actors’ voices.

So in some ways, the boys seemed to have been watching a different movie. They were especially amused by a line from the commercial I heard them repeat on the ride to the theater in which the humor comes from punning on “duty”/”doodie” and the confusion of meaning between honor and excrement.  They remembered many lines that I didn't. But I remembered many of Wreck-It Ralph’s allusions and parodies.

As we were leaving, Leo saw other kids from school and neighbors from our street waiting to see Wreck-It Ralph. He got to tell them how good and funny it is. As we walked to the car and drove away I tried to initiate some post-screening discussion, asking what they liked about it. This produced more quotations but not much summary or description or evaluation. I left it at that - they were more interested in talking and shouting in the inside-joke language of kids that parents don’t understand.

The next morning, though, Leo began a conversation over breakfast. He has often found movies seen in the theater to be a rather intense experience, and for a few years was scared of dark and threatening scenarios. We avoided moviegoing. There were scary parts, he admitted, but not the parts I worried about while watching, set in a first-person shooter with dark imagery, militarized avatars, heavy weaponry, and creepy villains. He was frightened by a different scenario, in which a character’s real bad identity was revealed in a climactic sequence.

Actually much of the movie is about ambiguity between good and bad characters, with the protagonist being a likable “bad guy” who wants to have a chance to enjoy the status of the hero: social acceptance, material rewards, and recognition. He seemed to tap into its deepest thematic material. Because we are led to sympathise with Ralph, a destructive antagonist in an 8-bit arcade game, Leo was happy that in the end of the narrative Ralph was finally included and represented within the world of the narrative on an “anniversary cake” from which he had previously been excluded.

By contrast, I didn’t find myself becoming very involved in the story, which I found to be conventional to the point of cliché. I did find the visuals and the characterizations and the representations of gaming and game worlds and the arcade as a play space to be rewarding enough to make the movie well worth seeing. I wondered about how much he got of references to old games. He reminded me that we had been to a video arcade at the Santa Monica Pier in California, which gave him a context for understanding the arcade in Wreck-It Ralph. Of course the movie has lots of nostalgic or reference-dependent jokes aimed at grown-ups, like a comical AA-style support group for game villains and a key narrative role for Q*Bert, who cannot be a character known to that many spectators much younger than me. This seems like an excellent example of a movie pitched effectively at both kids and their parents.

Finally, I asked a few questions about the appeals of going to the movies. Leo appreciates the added value of a bigger screen and 3D. Moviegoing is special because you can only see a new movie in the theater for a limited time. He also said he liked being seated between his two friends. That way, he could be the one to pass the popcorn back and forth.

10/05/2012

Free TV, Intermediality

New work! 

Television & New Media vol. 13 no. 6 includes my essay, "Free TV: File-Sharing and the Value of Television." This is the journal version of a paper I gave at SCMS in 2011

Abstract: Circulation of television programs in file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent is one of the many developments in the era of media convergence prompting a renewal of television’s place in the popular imagination. Scholarly study of file-sharing tends to focus on movies and music, keeping TV marginal despite its heavy circulation in P2P networks. By considering its cultural implications as revealed in the discourses of P2P TV sharers, this essay’s aim is to understand TV file-sharing as one term in the negotiation of television’s value during the contemporary period. It is especially concerned with understanding the ethical theories of file-sharing participants. It situates these within the context of television’s shift from low, mass culture to a more legitimated status; from a freely accessible public good to a private good for which one must enter into terms of commercial exchange; and from a national/local form of culture to a global, cosmopolitan experience.

And last month I contributed an entry to the Center for 21st Century Studies blog. "Intermediality and Transmedia Storytelling" was my response on a talk at UWM by Hans-Joachim Backe

Excerpt: In Anglo-American film and television studies, as well as in the entertainment/media industries, “transmedia” has been a buzzword and object of scholarly attention in the past several years. Transmedia is usually short for transmedia storytelling: the expansion of narratives in media franchises such as Batman or Star Wars across multiple platforms including movies, TV, web video, comics, novels, and games. “Intermedia” was not a term I had noticed, though. As Backe described in his engaging presentation on September 13, intermediality has been a subject of much research and publication where he lives and teaches in Germany and elsewhere in Europe — more than a dozen books on the topic have appeared — particularly among literary scholars whose interests have turned to other media. Yet, in his words, it “furrows the brows of non-Europeans” to hear this term rather than the more familiar transmedia. The two ideas ostensibly do not have much to do with each other conceptually, and yet I kept wondering during Backe’s talk if it might not be productive to consider them side by side and see what each one reveals about the other.

8/23/2012

YouTube and Archives, Scarcity and Abudance

A room for viewing UCLA Film and Television Archive materials in the Powell Library.

I've been in Los Angeles since early August with Elana and our two children mixing business and pleasure. Some of the time we have been tourists, and some of the time we have been doing research at the UCLA Film & Television Archive while one kid goes to day camp (the eight year-old) and one is in the care of a babysitter (the two year-old). The initial motivation for the trip was (1) to get Elana time at the archive to watch old soaps for her book project on the history of daytime drama, and (2) to spend time in LA, a place we have both been eager to explore. Elana has been here a few times before doing research, but I had only visited on a family trip in 1985, when I was thirteen. Finding research for me to do here too was secondary (though it got me to apply for and receive a small-ish amount of travel funding -- and something productive to do for part of the three weeks we have been living in LA). As it turns out, there are materials in the Archive’s collection that I have been excited and grateful to access, that will be important for my work. I made some discoveries here too. 

The research I have been doing is for my book project on early video games. I have been watching television commercials for game systems and game titles from the 1970s and early 80s, news segments on video games from the early 80s from the News and Public Affairs (NAPA) collection, and an episode of the anthology drama Insight with a video games theme from 1983 (this was a discovery - I hadn't known about this series, and I watched several more episodes while here, all of which are fascinating in various ways and maybe material for a future blog post). 

As in a previous research trip, I have been wary of “wasting” my time here looking at things that are freely available online - i.e., on YouTube. Every time I checked Google to see if the commercial I was watching is on YouTube, I said a little atheist prayer that I would be unable to turn it up online. At the same time, I would be a bit relieved upon locating versions on YouTube: my note-taking at the archive would not be the only record I would keep of my viewing. Any time I did find the same item on YouTube, I downloaded the video (using the Chrome extension FastestTube) and saved it to my research files for later reference. My folder of commercials is now swelling with videos downloaded from YouTube, many more than I have watched in archives. But of course YouTube is an archive, and increasingly it is the archive. It's a dangerous fallacy to assume that everything is online now, but it's also important to recognize how much public value there is in easily accessible materials that have only existed for a short time. I find myself in tension between these two kinds of excitement: at finding so much on YouTube, but also at finding the really good stuff that is not on YouTube. 

You probably know why finding useful, important materials that are not on YouTube excites me. Perhaps most of all, it justifies my travel here, my time spent in the archive. It also gives me something to write about that others are unlikely to have discussed already, offering a claim on originality. It fits the romantic narrative of research as a quest for rare artefacts, for revealing clues along the way to solving the big mystery. It  lets me perform a certain kind of scholar identity - I’m no mere armchair theorist, I’m a historian in the archive seeking documentary evidence. If your work requires a trip from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, that must make it distinguished and significant. There's also some of that self-satisfied elitism that comes with scare knowledge - like the masculinist record collectors, cinephiles, sports fans, etc., one-upping each other with the rarity of their acquisitions and experiences.

But there is something a bit distasteful to me about the fetishizing of scarce archival artefacts in which I fully admit I participate. In a way I’m upholding a hierarchy of materials and practices, in which websurfing and watching YouTube videos is a kind of casual scholarship - if you can call it that - that practically anyone can do, while accessing the materials in the archive is more serious and productive. In the introduction to her book Welcome to the Dreamhouse, Lynn Spigel writes of a distinction between "high" historical research in government or university institutions, and "low" research undertaken in retail environment, shopping for memorabilia and pop culture ephemera. She indicates an intention to "scandalize these divisions." (13) I would like to propose a similar point, but substituting watching videos online for shopping. 

Watching videos online isn't the only way of accessing the moving image culture of the past, but we can do a lot with what we have available. Yes there are problems. There is the bias of the present to contend with - YouTube only has what people in the past seven years have deemed worth sharing. This bias applies to archives too, and YouTube is much more democratic, its "curators" and "archivists" representing much broader constituencies than those of institutions. There is often a question of provenance and completeness and identifying information. Sometimes we don't know what we're looking at on YouTube, and I never know if I can trust the YouTuber's facts - how do they know this was on TV in 1977? There is an ephemerality, too - things that were there once are gone, things that are there now might vanish tomorrow, and the copyright regimes of the future might end the freedom of access we now enjoy. 

What I was most excited to access here were commercials for video games that I have never seen before, and I wish I could post them to YouTube - or that the archive could. This would help it broaden a mission of access to match its efforts at preservation. Issues of rights stand in the way, and as the archivist here, Mark Quigley, explained to me, advertising is often harder to clear than other forms of media because of uncertainty over who actually holds rights to materials - clients or agencies. It might not be possible to get me rights to reproduce images from these tapes or disks for publication, which I might like to do (I will probably request that the archive seek permission from the rights holders, but I'm not that hopeful). 

Sometimes archival materials come with helpful identifying data. The spots I watched were often preserved and deposited on reels submitted for awards. I often saw commercials preceded by title cards identifying the agency and the date, and sometimes other creative personnel (e.g., if an ad was submitted for an award for photography, the DP might get a credit). I don't remember ever noticing a specific date and ad agency given in YouTube tags or descriptions. Some of the ads I watched here represent video games and other electronic toys as space-age computer technologies, or as "new wave" trends for hip young people. Some of them are different from other ads I have watched. 

However, despite knowing who made them and when, I have no way of knowing from the archive's catalog or from the materials themselves whether these ads ever aired on American television. All I know is what I have found out at the archive - the catalog info and the info on the tape or disc. One reel I watched was of Canadian commercials that aired in the early 80s, but I only recognized this because I grew up in Canada in the early 80s - not because of any effort to identify the materials by nation in the catalog. Another researcher might assume they were American ads. One benefit of YouTube videos is that we know they were aired, and recorded off air, and their descriptions and comments often add more context. It is only by having been broadcast in the first place that they have made their way to YouTube: someone recorded them with their VCR and saved the recording. In some ways this information is as valuable as the data available from an official institution.

YouTube videos can also be easier to study. One skill this trip has called upon is detailed transcription and description of speech and images. I am not ordinarily accustomed to this kind of detail-focused task. In most of my writing I have had video copies that I have personally owned of texts I am analyzing, and have often rewatched segments as necessary while writing about them. In writing about these archival videos I have only had one crack at the text, and I would pause and rewind frequently, eager to quote correctly and note details I might need to describe later on. I watched one episode of Nightline on video games from 1983 that I almost completely transcribed, only leaving out some short passages that didn't seem relevant enough to warrant the effort. I spent a whole morning just on about twenty minutes of video (when you subtract the commercials and the brief segment on a different topic). I wish that episode would be posted online. It would get a huge audience, I think, of retro gamers and more generally Gen X'ers nostalgic for the early 80s. A young Sherry Turkle appears talking about her book The Second Self -- about men in pinstripe suits replacing their lunch hour transcendental meditation with a midday session at the video arcade. A PTA official complains that kids are wasting their meal money and bus fare at the "video parlors," and that their time there isn't adequately supervised by adults. A junior high principal on Long Island calls video games "another nail in the coffin of our country." 

To wish that items like this were on YouTube is to desire to share and make accessible the media of the past. It seems wrong to feel good because this tape is only available to me as a researcher in an archive.

Most of all, what I want to point out here is that one archive is not better than another. Archives, public and online and institutional, are historically useful, depending on your interests. The scarcity of the institutional archive doesn't make it superior to the abundance of the public online archive, and vice versa. There is value in both scarcity and abundance. Historiographically, scarcity is more manageable. Abundance can be daunting and it makes our work more time and labor intensive. But it's also, obviously, such a blessing to media historiography. And while it's easy to access, the hard work is to make sense of it all.
Powell Library, home of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.



















My flickr photos tagged los angeles are mostly not of UCLA.

My tumblr fraktastic contains images relevant to this research project on video games; my tumblr giferrific is just GIFs.