‘Imagination is a Strategy in Itself’
14 February 2022
On September 10, 2021, we held the second (and final) workshop for the Pause for Thought project.
Building on the project’s first workshop and discussions and research conducted since, we organised our second workshop around the theme of ‘making sense of media.’ Participants included:
Huda Awan (Writer)
Sam Byers (Novelist)
J. R. Carpenter (Artist, Writer and Researcher)
Beckie Coleman (Professor, Bristol Digital Futures Institute/School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol)
Jess Henderson (Writer, Researcher, Author and Artist)
Tung-Hui Hu (Associate Professor of English, the University of Michigan)
Nathan Jones (Lecturer in Fine Art: Digital Media, Lancaster University)
Jay Owens (Writer and Researcher)
Sanjana Varghese (Writer, Journalist and Researcher)
All of these participants work with media or work on media. That is, all of them use media to produce knowledge, or produce knowledge about media. The question we wanted to discuss with them was this: How can we reflect on what it means to make knowledge today, both with and about media, given how saturated our society is with media and how rapidly these media change?
From the outset, our participants both questioned and deepened this framing in different ways. Nathan, Jay, and Jess all questioned the notion of ‘social acceleration,’ or the feeling that society is changing at an ever-quicker pace. Jay in particular noted that she experiences temporality differently depending on what she’s doing, both as a media professional and as a person embroiled in media. J. R.’s contribution to this discussion shifted the terms much more radically: as a precariously-employed artist, writer, and researcher who prefers to work slowly, she can’t disentangle time pressures from capitalism itself. In a similiar vein, Huda noted that her capacity to produce knowledge about media depended on how much spare time she could find around the jobs she has to work to make a living.
These responses to our initial framing opened up a discussion reflecting on what it means to think about knowledge work as production. Tung-Hui asked why we decided to emphasise ‘knowledge production’ when a lot of the labour we do as knowledge workers could be more profitably thought of as ‘knowledge maintenance.’ That is, while it’s true that all of us are constantly engaged in launching things into the world, we spend less time thinking about who actually maintains the infrastructure that supports the products of our intellectual or creative labour. Riffing on this idea from an academic perspective, Nathan noted that much of the labour of, for instance, publishing a journal article fits in to this category, as much of it is given over to maintaining oneself (staying focused) and working with convoluted systems, like publisher’s portals, while Beckie pointed out that a lot of the work academics do wouldn’t be possible without the labour of, for instance, reviewers or administrators.
This discussion of the kinds of labour involved in producing knowledge dovetailed with a second major theme: the need to expand our understanding of what ‘sense’ means. For Beckie, to ‘make sense’ of media not only means to produce knowledge about it, but also has bodily and environmental resonances: media make environments and atmospheres in which we are immersed and which we have to navigate. One of the key questions she was prompted to ask in response to our workshop’s theme was whether we can develop an expansive understanding of knowledge production that incorporates all these aspects.
As the discussion progressed, Jay, Sam, and Huda drew out another theme that cut across the imperatives of capitalism and the experience of being a knowledge worker: for many of us, the imperative to create has subjective and embodied consequences. For Jay, the idea that capitalism places time pressures on us isn’t fixed or constant; rather, it changes as one’s own career progresses. She noted that earlier on in her career, her youth could be used as its own kind of ‘capital’: being young and being always online was a bankable asset. As she’s accrued more experience, however, she feels like she no longer has to ‘embody the ‘bleeding edge’.’ For Huda, the imperative to be constantly keeping up with the new leads, inevitably, to burnout – which, as Jess noted, must be understood as a social condition. For Sam, the feeling that one always has to produce a ‘discrete product’ – in his case, a new novel – has undermined the pursuit of creativity or the production of knowledge for its own sake. What we experience as a kind of social acceleration may be better understood, he suggested, as the compression of available time between the end of one project – and the launching of its product – and the start of the next.
What we actually produce when we produce knowledge, then, is never just a discrete product. We have to maintain ourselves; maintain others with and for whom we work; and maintain our relationship to all of the large-scale systems on which knowledge production relies. As J. R. pointed out, this reliance on large-scale systems – such as cloud computing, the infrastructure that underpins the internet – also means that producing knowledge produces waste in the form of pollution. Picking up on this theme, Tung-Hui referred to the production of these ‘by-products’ of knowledge as a kind of ‘slow violence.’ Riffing on the Pause for Thought project’s emphasis on time, Sam reflected that the pressure to be busy and to produce can also be understood as a pressure to ‘take up space.’ That is, to make knowledge – or art or literature – one must not only make space for oneself in an increasingly-cluttered media environment, but must also make use of resources – temporal or environmental – that are necessarily finite. Time pressures are expansive: they not only take over our lives, but also take over the space of the planet that we inhabit.
Over the course of the workshop, participants proposed a variety of different strategies for coping with our rapidly changing media situation. Tung-Hui advocated for a kind of ambivalence to the pressures that capitalism places upon our selves and our increasingly-limited time: instead of seeing ourselves as ‘sovereign individuals’ empowered to resist huge social forces, we would be better off, he argued, problematising the imperative to constantly produce more work and more novelty or, indeed, to constantly feel as though we must express ourselves. In a similar vein, J. R. argued that we needed to develop longer and slower strategies for work, figuring out ways to talk about things that seem to be too big to talk about. Huda summed this up, pithily, as finding different ways to think and write; to, in other words, find new ways to conceptualise what it might mean to opt out of these systems.
What are we to take from this workshop – and, indeed, from the process of running workshops to discuss ideas that we have been researching before they’re fully formed? Like our first workshop, one of the great pleasures of putting our ideas before a group of talented people engaged in different kinds of work is to be challenged. While we may not have wholly revised our – often-abstract – ideas about time, media, acceleration, and knowledge, these workshops have challenged us to expand what we mean by these terms and to revise the contexts in which they might be situated.
Time, this workshop reminded us, is inextricable from labour. Labour, moreover, is the work not only of minds, but of bodies. These bodies are not just in time but occupy space. In other words, social acceleration is inextricable from capitalism, has physical consequences on individuals and on societies – like burnout, as Jess and Huda reminded us – and has environmental effects. And crucially, while we might be tempted to criticise the pace at which society is changing, Jay also reminded us – in the context of a pandemic, which has made many of us feel as though life had slowed down a little too much – speed, business, change, and novelty also have their own pleasures that can’t be ignored.
While we spent a lot of time thinking about what might be done to combat these pernicious problems, the point of this workshop wasn’t to come up with ‘solutions.’ That would have taken much more time than the few hours we had to dedicate to this discussion. As Sam reminded us right at the end, though, much of the value and joy of creative thought comes from the fact that it can’t be instrumentalised. Or, to borrow a phrase of his, in response to social acceleration, rapid media change, and the overwhelming scale of contemporary technology, it pays to remember that ‘imagining is a strategy in itself.’
14 February 2022
Scott Wark is a research fellow for the Wellcome-funded project, ‘People Like You: Contemporary Figures of Personalisation’. He is based at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. He researches online culture, amongst other things.
Contributed as part of Workshop 2