Infrastructures of Feeling: The Digital Mediation of the Present
23 January 2022
I just feel like I’ll skip and refresh just to see if there’s anything interesting that comes up, because what came up, I’m not really interested in (Jade).
Live is something that I would say, “We’ve got a scheduled event. So at three o’clock we’ve got a curator talking about this work of art […]. Real-time might be more there’s something happening. We’re just streaming. More live streaming rather than we’re focusing (Janet).
‘Mindless scrolling’ ‘depletes your capacity to focus on anything else, so it becomes a solution to the fact that you can’t focus. The more you are using it, the more it stops you from focusing, and you just fall into this kind of mindless scroll, which is of course something that very smart people have sat around trying to design as an intended outcome’ (John).
This paper explores people’s everyday engagements with digital media, including refreshing, scrolling, checking, binging and minding, focusing on the temporalities that such practices generate and organise. Drawing on interviews and art-making workshops with people who work with digital media (e.g. Digital Directors of large organisations, Social Media Managers), students at a girls secondary school, and mindfulness practitioners, I argue that digital media temporalities can be understood in terms of the present. This present temporality is malleable; stretched and condensed, differently paced and compressed, but nevertheless focusing attention on ‘the now’ – for example, in the suspension of linear time through social media doom-scrolling or losing oneself in streaming a box-set, or the immediacy of constant real-time message notifications or live news updates. The paper develops a concept of ‘infrastructures of feeling’ to attend to this mediated present.
Infrastructures have become a key way in which systems and connections between people, technologies and socio-cultural worlds are currently explained. Some of this work focuses on media infrastructures and insightfully excavates the hidden systems via which media content is organised, communicated and engaged, with Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski arguing that ‘our current mediascapes would not exist without our current media infrastructures’ (2015: 1, see also Plantin et al 2016). They argue that an ‘infrastructural disposition’ highlights processes of media distribution as well as production and consumption, focuses attention on the materialities of such distribution, and develops a technological literacy around infrastructures that may foster a more public and democratic investment in infrastructures (2015: 4-6).
In this paper I develop a somewhat different infrastructural disposition towards contemporary media, understanding infrastructures in terms of affect and feeling. While analyses of media infrastructures have tended to focus on surfacing the ‘structures that underlie or support’ the links between platforms, apps and devices (Plantin et al 2016), I focus on how infrastructures might also indicate a plurality of feelings that media generate and arrange. That is, rather than understand the prefix ‘infra’ as referring to what is ‘beneath’ media content and must be brought into view, I see the ‘infra’ as drawing attention to that which is at the edges of, or in excess of, digital media; what Patricia Clough terms the ‘infra-empirical’, where the ‘activity of our world today to a large extent takes place at time-scales far finer than those of human perception, at the probabilistic scale of affect’ (2009: 54). I also see the ‘infra’ as referring to the everyday and sometimes mundane aspects of everyday life – ‘what happens when nothing happens’ as Georges Perec (1975/2010) puts it when describing the infraordinary.
To expand this idea of infrastructure, I return to Raymond Williams’ (1977) concept of structures of feeling, which he explains as ‘concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt’ (Williams 1977: 132). Williams develops the concept through a focus on media technologies, and especially those new technologies that help to shape an emerging and pre-emerging culture. He notes, ‘[a]gain and again what we have to observe is in effect a pre-emergence, active and pressing but not yet fully articulated’ (1977: 126); an image or idea or practice that hovers ‘at the edge of semantic availability’ (1977: 132). He also explains a structure of feeling as an ‘active’, ‘flexible’, ‘temporal present’ (1977: 128); that is, a shifting composition where the forms and genres that make up a structure, as well as the feelings that accompany them, are ‘in solution’.
I argue that, while Williams identifies emergent and pre-emergent culture in the art and media texts he analyses (e.g. in the Welsh industrial novel or broadcast television), such qualities may be even more significant for digital media – for example in the fast-paced development of new technologies and, more interestingly, in the ways in which many platforms, apps, and devices are designed around pre-empting and delivering ‘freshness’ (the updated social media stream or live news page) and ‘nextness’ (the next TV programme or series to stream or item to purchase). In these ways, pre-emergence is built into digital media in ways that involve affect and sensation (Amoore 2013, Hansen 2015, Hillis et al 2015) and, I suggest, compose a ‘temporal present’; an in media res ‘no longer defined with respect to determinable end points’ (Lury 2012: 190). I therefore build on Williams’ concept of structures of feeling to propose the concept of infrastructures of feeling as a means of grasping the ordinary and affective experiences of contemporary digitally mediated time.
23 January 2022
Rebecca Coleman is currently a Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research crosses sociology, media and cultural studies and feminist theory, and she has particular interests in temporality (presents and futures); bodies, affect and new materialisms; mediated culture and images; and inventive methodologies.
Contributed as part of Symposium: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society