Keeping It All Together
9 September 2021
The first workshop for the Pause for Thought project, funded via the AHRC Research Networking Scheme and supported by the University of Lincoln and the University of Warwick, was held on the 26th of April, 2021. The participants were as follows:
Tom Sutherland (organiser)
Scott Wark (organiser)
Emma Cocker (Associate Professor in Fine Art – Nottingham Trent University)
Zara Dinnen (Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature – Queen Mary University of London)
Niall Docherty (Postdoctoral Researcher – Microsoft Social Media Collective)
Luke Gbedemah (Data Reporter – Tortoise Media)
Bernard Geoghegen (Senior Lecturer in the History and Theory of Digital Media – King’s College London)
Lizzie Malcom (Designer and developer – Rectangle)
Sam Meech (Artist and educator – http://portfolio.smeech.co.uk)
Paula Morison (Conceptual artist – http://www.paulamorison.com)
Erica Scourti (Artist and writer – https://www.ericascourti.com)
The question posed to the participants was: how do we live in a high-speed society? What are the practical strategies that we as ‘media professionals’ (or just people living and working today) to make sense of this situation? How do we ‘keep it all together’ in times of perpetual distraction? How do we ‘keep up’ when faced with the fact that media are constantly changing?
Unsurprisingly, the profusely disruptive effects stemming from the COVID-19 loomed large over the first half of the discussion, with participants considering the various ways in which this crisis has (as crises so often do) made certain things more visible, and has in many instances forced us to alter not only our working habits, but also our priorities in life, our use of time, what we value and the extent to which we are valued by others.
Below is a brief precis of the major themes and talking points that emerged from the ensuing discussion:
⇒ Rather than simply ‘keeping up’, many artists – specifically, those who rely upon studios, galleries, and other such spaces – found that the material, embodied aspects of their practice had been made for more difficult, forcing often quite radical changes in their methods of work. And whilst this can be frustrating and exacting, especially given the precarious labour conditions under which so many artists operate, the shift toward videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom has also provided new opportunities for such freelancers. In a broader sense, many artists take great interest in and inspiration from glitches, breaks, disturbances, and moments of noise or interference that interrupt the normal operation of things, and the pandemic has unsurprisingly furnished a host of these.
⇒ Many participants observed an intensified pressure to use their time productively during periods of lockdown, and in a lot of cases, an accompanying sense of guilt that they hadn’t done more during this time (regardless of whether this is with respect to directly work-related activities, or to other aspects of one’s life). Rather than providing some respite from the usual demands of work, pressures have often been intensified, and with them comes a heightened risk of burnout. Of course, it was noted that we are often our own worst enemies, continually pushing ourselves, and finding ourselves unable to say no to all sorts of requests. Indeed, the logic of productivity so easily affects domains that are supposed to remain outside of its ambit: in other words, we worry that we are not making the best use of our leisure time; that we are not doing enough.
⇒ It was pointed out that the pandemic has, for those of us able to work from home (which of course represents only a minority of the total workforce, though it does encompass many writers, artists, and workers within the creative industries), significantly changed our relationship to and reckoning of time, often with ambivalent results. For instance, a loss of the intervals or ‘dead time’ that come, say, from commuting. Such a loss can be beneficial, giving us time that would otherwise be spent in listless boredom, but it can also rob us of opportunities to relax and collect ourselves. Likewise, whilst the normalization of videoconferencing has allowed us to participate in events and connect with people in ways that would otherwise be difficult or impossible, it also means that commitments are unable to be avoided on the basis of geographical or financial constraints. The tacit moral imperative to be connected at all times is amplified.
⇒ Participants insightfully challenged our central concept of ‘media literacies.’ For those of us involved in teaching media (whether in theoretical or practical contexts), there is often an anxiety that one’s curricula and syllabi will never be able to keep pace with the rapid rate of technological change and with the media practices of one’s own students. One of the questions we ask is whether we can address this problem by formalizing new media literacies. In this project, media literacies refers not so much to the traditional aspiration of creating a more informed, civically aware citizenry by identifying literacies that others lack, but rather to literacies that all of us possess; literacies that help us navigate and negotiate a world saturated by media and fueled by exigencies of productivity and efficiency. Yet, our concept nevertheless raises questions about expertise. If these new literacies are founded on a linear pedagogical model of transmission between an educator, or ‘expert,’ and a student, can they really be said to affirm the expertise with media that each of us develops as we navigate our high-speed society? How might we formulate modes of pedagogy that reflects contemporary culture’s tendency to change rapidly, rather than trying to counteract it – whilst incorporating greater reciprocity and uncertainty into our teaching?
⇒ Likewise, our opening provocation – asking participants to consider how they both ‘keep up’ and ‘keep it all together’ in the face of these challenges – was quite reasonably questioned. In fact, it was suggested, such imperatives may actually reinforce rather than challenge hegemonic logics of productivity and efficiency (and social acceleration more generally). So often, we are impelled to find strategies for coping with the pressures of everyday life. But coping is not a neutral concept; on the contrary, it carries with it a whole set of normative expectations around what it means to be a ‘good worker’, or a ‘good user’, or a ‘good citizen’, framed by a worldview that emphasizes individual responsibility at the expense of that of corporate responsibility, governmental responsibility, and so on. How might we resist such responsibilization? What is at stake in refusal, in us saying ‘no’, both individually and collectively, to these imperatives? Perhaps, rather than keeping things together, we need to hold them a bit more lightly, or even let them fall apart.
⇒ Concerns about the responsibilization of the individual were accompanied by worries regarding the instrumentalization of techniques and practices that might otherwise constitute genuine forms of resistance to said imperatives. For instance, many of us are likely familiar with the now-routine platitudes regarding self-help, mindfulness, meditation, and so forth that have been arrogated into the managerial vocabulary, offering temporary relief from the stresses of one’s work life without any fundamental to change to one’s actual work conditions. But self-care does not necessarily need to be understood in this fashion. We must avoid the paranoid notion that all forms of self-care are always already recuperated by capital.
⇒ Finally, at several points gestures were made toward ways of working, especially in an artistic context, that resist the pressure to conform to the forward-march of a perceived contemporaneity. Many artists, it was observed, are decidedly interested in technologies that have either broken or have reached a point of obsolescence, no longer existing within the mainstream. Nostalgia can be a passive, reactionary impulse, looking wistfully toward an imagined golden age, but it can also be a powerful means of bringing the present into question. Great joy can be found in the tactile and embodied experiences of playing with and manipulating old technologies, or in the utilization of seemingly outmoded techniques of fabrication. How can we bring more attention to the stubbornness of technology, in the face of a seemingly ever-hastening cycle of invention and obsolescence?
9 September 2021
Tom Sutherland is a senior lecturer in media studies, and programme leader for the MA Studies in Media and Culture, at the University of Lincoln.
Contributed as part of Workshop 1