Waves of subaltern, colonial, postcolonial, and critical race studies have posed an undeniable challenge to the normative geopolitical bent of area studies, and yet the same challenges are rarely taken up within media studies. Media studies reach a similar impasse when it comes to dealing with geopolitical forms and functions, stressing the dynamism of media and the passivity, historical immutability, and cultural inertness of regions. This article reconsiders the impasses of both area studies and media studies to propose an alternative approach to the region-platform relation: platformativity. The notion of platformativity is intended to address the infra-individual intra-actions between platform and human, and individual and collective – a kind of performativity via platforms. It considers how media infrastructures operate alongside and through national and regional forms to generate signaletic modes of existence that function as relays between disciplinary, sovereign, and biopolitical formations.
As the study of platforms turns to users and user practices, it often reaches an impasse. The impasse concerns social relations. The focus on the platform tends to include social relations as an afterthought, as if sociality were something to be added to the study of platforms as a supplement. In their foreword to the Platform Studies book series, for instance, Nick Monfort and Ian Bogost (2009: vii) provide a neatly conceptualized call for a ‘focus on a single platform or a closely related family of platforms’ in conjunction with ‘technical rigor and in-depth investigation of how computing technologies work’. They then signal the importance of ‘an awareness of and discussion of how computing platforms exist in a context of culture and society, being developed based on cultural concepts and then contributing to culture in a variety of ways’ (Ibid., viii).
Such a call is laudable both for bringing questions about culture and society into platform studies and for leaving open questions about how to define or delimit culture. Arguably, the idea that culture consists of ideas and perceptions (rather than, say, practices, social relations, or institutions) shows a certain bias. But it is especially around the notion of ‘context’ that the impasse arises. Culture and society are situated as a context for platforms, a context from which platform creators (and maybe users) draw ideas and to which they may in turn contribute – ‘for instance, affecting how people perceive computing’ (Ibid.).
This way of introducing culture and society recalls older models of text and context, which insisted that artefacts needed to be situated within their historical and cultural context. When repurposed for platform studies, however, this mode of contextualization also introduces a sharp divide between individual and society. Both platforms and their creators are posited as individuals. It seems that the focus on creators insinuates a normative conceptualization of human individual (methodological individualism), which is extended to the technical individual or platform. As such, when questions arise about society or culture, these are assumed to lay outside the individual human and individual platform, as if surrounding them.
In their study of the Atari Video Computer System, Monfort and Bogost deal with the platform in a manner that runs counter to methodological individualism. In the early days of video games, because the Atari’s
Platform studies, then, seem willing and able to dispense with methodological individualism when it comes to platforms, creators, and especially the relationship between them. Users, too, might be introduced into this relation of infra-individual interaction without resorting to normative conceptualizations of the individual. Gaming might also be characterized in terms of pacing and racing the beam, albeit in a converse manner: you modify your moves within the game to the timing set by the beam, while adjusting perceptually to the firing of scan lines. Yet as soon as questions about society or the collective are raised, the normative conceptualization kicks in. Suddenly, the creators, the game, and the users are posited as normative individuals by reference to a social or cultural context, which is in turn liable to be understood by reference to normative geopolitical individuals (countries or regions, national cultures or regional cultures). Although I have drawn somewhat opportunistically on Monfort and Bogost’s call for platform studies, the impasse with respect to social relations or the collective – the tendency to treat them supplementally – is common not only in platform studies but also in media studies more generally. Jason Read (2015: 1) frames this impasse succinctly in his recent work on the politics of transindividuality:
The individual has become not only the basis of political, cultural, and economic understanding but also the extent of all of our aspirations; the individual is both methodologically and prescriptively dominant; it is simultaneously all one needs to make sense of the world and the best that one could hope from it.
Read calls attention in particular to the persistence of methodological individualism at the level of the human individual in relation to society. As his evocation of Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of individuation attests, however, he is concerned with how the paradigm of normative individualism is frequently extended beyond humans to both technical modes of existence and social modes of existence. The hallmark of Simondon’s approach is to look at a range of individuals – technical individuals, human individuals, among others – from an implicitly nonnormative perspective, from the perspective of the process of individuation. From such a perspective, the individual is always more than one; no matter how thoroughly individualized socially or psychologically, it remains open to processes of individuation. As Muriel Combes (2013: 26-27) explains, Simondon insists on the continuity between a first vital individuation and a second individualization that is at once psychic and social, in order to avoid establishing a difference in nature between the vital, on the one hand, and the psychosocial, on the other: ‘there is not properly speaking a psychic individuation, but an individualization of the living being giving birth to the somatic and the psychic’. As such, when Simondon (1989/1958: 252) considers technology from the perspective of individuation, he writes: ‘The machine remains in the obscure zones of our civilization, at all social levels’.
If the relation between human individuals and technical individuals entails an obscure zone, it is because technical individuals emerge through a prolongation of vital individuation, yet we tend to treat them as if they derived from a process of individuation substantially different from it. Nonetheless, as Read (2015: 106) puts it, despite our efforts to introduce a divide between human and technological individuals, because they both prolong vital individuation, their relation ‘is not well grasped by the divisions into part and whole, form and matter, genesis and use’. As a result, Read (Ibid.) concludes,
the problem of technology, of grasping its specific essence, is then immediately related to another ‘obscure zone’, that of the individual and society. These two problems, the relation of the individual to technology and of the individual to society, constantly intersect while obscuring each other.
Looking at platform studies from the angle of Simondon explains how it is that studies keenly attentive to technical individuation of platforms, and to the relation between human individual and technical individual, may nonetheless serve to obscure the relation between individual and society. Whether Simondon himself arrives at a persuasive account of social relations remains an open question, but he sets forth the challenge, the stakes, and the terms of engagement, with admirable lucidity: individuation is only ever individual and collective. Subsequently I address what is sometimes called ‘post-television’ through a dialogue between Simondon’s emphasis on individual-and-collective individuation and Raymond Williams’s account of the ‘social technology’ of television. But first I need to introduce another zone obscuring the relations between technology, individual, and society – the obscure zone called area studies.
Ani Maitra and Rey Chow put their thumb on the impasse of area studies vis-à-vis media: everything hinges on the preposition ‘in’. Their discussion takes issue with accounts of ‘new media in Asia’ with reference to internet and cell phone use. ‘On the one hand’, they note (Maitra & Chow 2015: 17),
the rhetoric of ‘new media’ often emphasizes notions of rootlessness and placelessness, as borne out by the decentred nature of rhizomatic networks that transcend spatial and temporal constraints.… On the other hand, the qualifying phrase ‘in Asia’ suggests a geographical and geopolitical circumscription, a territorial cordoning off so that the spotlight is on ‘Asia’.
Maitra and Chow expose a sort of double logic inherent in the idea of new media in Asia. They begin by exposing the paired processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. They then reveal the logic of supplementation implicit in what they call ethnoculturalist approaches: reterritorialization in this instance is a matter of ethnoculturalist supplementation.
In effect, the paradigm of ‘media in Asia’ treats the platform as a mobile object to which a series of static attributes or cultural qualities may be subjectively added. What is more, such cultural qualities are fixed, static, and internally homogeneous. Thus accounts of mobile media in Korea and Japan, for instance, turn into accounts of the Koreanness or Japaneseness of mobile media. The paradigm of media in Asia produces culturally subjectified individuals who in turn subjectify objects. In sum, in this paradigm, the encounter between media studies and areas studies does not challenge either field but merely reinforces received biases.
As Arjun Appadurai pointed out some years ago (2000: 7),
much traditional thinking about ‘areas’ has been driven by conceptions of geographical, civilisational, and cultural coherence that rely on some sort of trait list – of values, languages, material practices, ecological adaptations, marriage patterns, and the like. However sophisticated these approaches, they all tend to see ‘areas’ as relatively immobile aggregates of traits, with more or less durable historical boundaries and with a unity composed of more or less enduring properties.
The obscure zone of area studies, then, is wholeheartedly complicit with the obscure zone of platform media studies. Their encounter allows the two relations – human and technology, human and society – to obscure each other. Again, the strength of Maitra and Chow’s account lies in showing how a logic of supplementation comes into play. Areas, then, appear to be ideal supplements for media and technologies: actual places are reduced to environments and static contexts that serve as repositories of fixed values. In effect, their discussion renews the hoary question once posed via the notion of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’: when does the qualifier ‘with Chinese characteristics’ stop being a description for capitalism in China?
In sum, if media studies and area studies prove so complicit in their mutual obscuring of the individuation that generates the relation between humans and technologies and societies, it is because each field ignores or even cuts short the process of individuation, resorting to methodological individualism, either at the level of users and producers, media and technologies, or cultures, places, and contexts. They share a fundamental orientation towards hylomorphism. Active or mobile forms seem invariably to come to passive or static matter from without: new media in Asia. The next gesture is supplemental: materiality provides the perfect supplement for these two disciplines, which are organized around apparently stable forms or structures, ranging from formal and technical features of moving images, delivery media, and formats, to the national or supranational (regional) form – hence, the Asianness of media in Asia.
Waves of subaltern, colonial, postcolonial, and critical race studies have eroded, or at least posed an undeniable challenge to, the normative bent of area studies, contesting its foundational geopolitical gesture of reterritorializing the relation between culture and language to foreclose questions about social relations by producing ethnolinguistically subjectified individuals (objects of study) incapable of individuation. In fact, area studies do not usually deal with areas or regions; they centre on countries, on national languages and cultures, and when they try to broach the area or region, everything is a matter of interaction between nationalized individuals, which is to say, internationalism. As such, although the term ‘transnational’ is increasingly mobilized discursively within area studies, it is largely treated as synonymous with ‘international’.1 Questions about infra-national intra-actions cannot seem to find any conceptual traction within area studies. Breaking through the encrusted layers of methodological individualism in area studies, then, requires taking some sharp advice from subaltern, colonial, and critical race studies, which is what ‘critical area studies’ has traditionally done.2 Here, a number of perspectives come to mind, but I limit myself to three that strike me as productive for fleshing out some intersections within the obscure zone between media studies and area studies: Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call to provincialize Europe, Appadurai’s formulation of process geographies, and Maitra and Chow’s attention to media actants.
In Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty (2009) takes on one of the key concerns of postcolonial thought, one that Edward Said (1995/1978) broached so eloquently in Orientalism, focusing on the production of historical knowledge – ‘a certain version of “Europe,” reified and celebrated in the phenomenal world of everyday relationships of power as the scene of the birth of the modern, [which] continues to dominate the discourse of history. Analysis does not make it go away’ (Ibid., 27-28). Chakrabarty (1992: 2) has long discussed how the dominance of this version of Europe results in a situation in which third world historians ‘feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.’ Indeed, although European philosophers and thinkers commonly produce statements ‘embracing the entirety of humanity … in relative, and sometimes absolute ignorance of the majority of humankind’ (Ibid., 3), they do not doubt the universality of their claims.
Chakrabarty carefully limits his remarks to the epistemological formation of history and its effect on third world historians, for instance: ‘the dominance of “Europe” as the subject of all histories is part of a much more profound theoretical condition under which historical knowledge is produced in the third world’ (2009: 29). If his observations are widely cited in other fields, however, it is because his remarks on the ‘theoretical condition’ for the production of historical knowledge rings true in a range of other fields and disciplines, among them film and media studies, in which the universality of European knowledge has been constituted by ruling out non-Western forms of knowledge. But what would it mean to provincialize Europe?
In effect, provincializing Europe would seem to imply considering its universals to be contingently and locally produced particulars. Crudely put, European studies are area studies. For Chakrabarty, seeing European studies as area studies promises to allow for a nonmoralizing plurality of historical pathways, and yet because his project remains less developed in this respect, it is ultimately easier to consider what he cautions against. Chakrabarty argues against putting histories from various parts of the world on equal footing, noting it is not clear what such equality would be relative to. Nor is the goal inclusiveness: inclusion would be inclusion within the dominance of Europe, just as equality would be relative to the European ideals of equality. Other scholars have noted another drawback: focusing attention on the dominance of Europe and on deconstructing the metaphysical construction of the West may tend to spur demands for increasingly sophisticated accounts of Europe rather than directing attention elsewhere to seek other ways of doing history (Chow 1998; Shih 2005). From a Marxist perspective, for instance, the danger is that of losing sight of global economic processes of primitive accumulation, of distributions that ground modes of circulation. Alf Hornborg offers such a succinct and powerful statement that it is worth citing in full (2014: 245):
Not only must Europe and the ‘West’ be dethroned as intrinsically generative of economic growth, modern technology and civilization, but these phenomena must in themselves be recognized as contingent on specific global constellations of asymmetric resource flows and power relations. In other words, not only was ‘the rise of the West’ a geographical coincidence of world history – the location of Europe as a middleman between the Old and New Worlds… – but its economic, technological and military means of expansion, generally viewed as European ‘inventions’ and as contributions to the rest of humanity, were products of global conjunctures and processes of accumulation that coalesced after the articulation of Old and New Worlds.… Technological rationality is never disconnected from issues of global resource distribution.
To return then to Chakrabarty, the strength of his account comes of exposing the status of European histories as area studies and thus dethroning them, which permits him to signal a generative condition of impossibility – akin to what Simondon called the obscure zone. As for media studies, it is true that they are today unabashedly Eurocentric, striving to prop up North Atlantic area studies, either with such ‘internal’ inventions as German media theory or renewed modes of universalizing the European subject by reference to media-induced crises of the body, which by default seems to correspond to what Ezra Pound once disparagingly called (for different reasons) the ‘average sensuous man’. In such instances, even though technological rationality (media) is often addressed from the angle of individuation, three other sites of individuation are methodologically reduced to individuals, often via ethnolinguistic reterroritorialization, as if to ground the analysis: nation, body, and region. It is precisely for this reason that doing media within area studies, or conversely doing areas within media studies, will not necessarily result in a progressive formation of knowledge production. On the contrary, such developments are more likely to reinforce the purchase of methodological individualism, to add to the obscurity of the obscure zone instead of seeking counternormative intersections by attending to its potentiality for individuation. Also, with reference to Hornborg, I would add that the perspective of individuation is here intended to bring processes of accumulation and distribution to the table. Media studies might contribute a great deal to such a project, for, when media studies adopt the angle of individuation on technological rationality, they tend to disclose processes of accumulation of a basic global resource, attention, whose distribution becomes entangled with knowledge production via labour and consumption practices. But to follow through on such a project, media studies would need to adopt a less normative stance vis-a-vis Europe and the ‘West’ as well as the nation form.
In a similar vein, it was in response to the tendency of area studies (to which we can add media studies) to treat nations and regions as context repositories of fixed cultural values that Arjun Appadurai urged a turn to ‘scapes’ or process geographies, proposing, for instance (2000: 7),
an architecture for area studies that is based on process geographies and sees significant areas of human organization as precipitates of various kinds of action, interaction, and motion – trade, travel, pilgrimage, warfare, proselytisation, colonisation, exile, and the like. These geographies are necessarily large scale and shifting, and their changes highlight variable congeries of language, history, and material life. Put more simply, the large regions that dominate our current maps for area studies are not permanent geographical facts. They are problematic heuristic devices for the study of global geographic and cultural processes.
As has often been noted, Appadurai so adamantly rejects structures and regularities in favour of flows and scapes that his approach may appear to ignore and even to side with, rather than to challenge, capitalist processes of deterritorialization and dematerialization. Ultimately, however, I agree with Bhaskar Sarkar (2008: 126-127) on the significance of Appadurai’s project: it has not proved incompatible with thinking about the regularities that emerge through flows and scapes and thus about the onset of structures. In effect, Appadurai’s process geographies may be considered analogous to, or at least compatible with, Foucault’s (2008) delineation of fields of rationality and Raymond Williams’s (1975) account of media as social technology. Mediascapes, for instance, are entangled with fields of rationality and thus imply fields of technical rationality, social technologies, and structures of feeling, or what Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 434-437) present in terms of abstract social machines.
Finally, as discussed previously, Maitra and Chow pose a challenge to received habits of treating media and areas in terms of mobile objects moving into stable areas – the paradigm of new media in Asia. While applying critical pressure to the normative implications following from the preposition ‘in’, they do not propose to reject the question of localization but to put pressure on it, to think about it anew. They thus strive to develop an approach to the local that ‘resists being read in terms of ethnoculturalism or technoculturalism’ (Maitra & Chow 2015: 23). Their account considers the ‘material conditions governing the level of access to digital media – conditions that compel us to disaggregate Asia’ (Ibid., 20). The great disparity in access within the putative area – both between and within ‘Asian’ nations – confirms that (a) a unified or aggregate Asia does not exist at the level of new media, and (b) calls for ‘media unity’ dovetail with biopolitical modes of governance that treat peoples within the national polity not as citizens but as bare life. This is why they forcefully challenge the ‘celebration of (imposed) ubiquitous access’ (Ibid., 26). In sum, to disaggregate ‘Asia’ by reference to access to resources is also to disaggregate ‘new media’. Their account in this register confirms Hornborg’s point: as we dethrone areas such as the ‘West’ and ‘Asia’, global distribution of resources emerges as the point of reference. But the urgent question then is: where does ‘aggregating’ actually happen?
Here Maitra and Chow make a move that meshes with, and fleshes out, Appadurai’s call for process geographies, approaching the question of localization not in terms of ‘rigid geographic regions and boundaries but rather in terms of fragmentary networks’ (Ibid., 26). These fragmentary networks are the sites of localized aggregating, as it were, but instead of using the term ‘aggregating’, Maitra and Chow (Ibid., 21) evoke the French term agencement, which might be translated as ‘assembling’ (rather than the more common translation, assemblage). In any event, whether one uses the term ‘aggregating’ or the term ‘assembling’, it is clear that the localization in question does not entail a bounded or enclosed space. On the contrary, in their account, again in a manner resonant with Appadurai, such a localization is emergent, not fully localizable in terms of coordinate geometries – hence their additional gloss, fragmentary networks. With these questions in mind, Maitra and Chow turn to their second case study, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (
In sum, due to their sustained effort to disaggregate Asia, Maitra and Chow offer a rigorous and persuasive theoretical alternative to the paradigm of ‘new media in Asia’ by considering how the assembling or agencement of human and non-human actors entails a ‘capture’ that is affective and localizing. Or, to put it another way, individuation is at once individual and collective, for the affective capture generates ‘atypical associations’ that traverse human individuals and platforms.
Because I find such an alternative to be both compelling in its attention to finer details of media and persuasive in its critical account of geopolitical knowledge, I propose a complementary line of inquiry into the relations between humans, platforms, and societies. This line of inquiry might be said to be situated in the vast middle ground between the two case studies in Maitra and Chow: on the one hand, the overbearing and massively sovereign power of governments and corporations mobilized to construct new media infrastructures that threaten to reduce peoples of India to ‘life in India’ or ‘Indian life’ to be managed; and, on the other hand, the daily life of smaller but no less significant groups, of actual peoples loosely coordinated through their labour and livelihood, that is, in this case, sailors, with their fleeting quasi-nomadic expressive uses of new media platforms. This vast middle ground of media between the ‘molar’ forces of major national military-industrial infrastructures and the ‘molecular’ movement of sailors and other minor groupings might tentatively be called television. This is because the assembling of the molar and molecular sides of media has most often been addressed through the history of television. Because this vast middle ground is, in fact, vast (as is the question of television), my remarks are necessarily somewhat schematic, exploratory in nature.
Discussions of new Korean streaming services such as Afreeca.tv and Daum tvPot almost invariably turn to the example of mukbang (eating broadcasting). Kim Jihoon (2016), for instance, evokes it in his account of intersections between the traditional liveness of broadcast and the new liveness of digital post-
Accounts of mukbang have addressed both sides of the phenomenon. On the blogger-streamer’s side of things, accounts stress the highs and lows of its economy. Blogger-streamers stand to make a lot of money: if they are popular and succeed in holding the attention of audiences, they may earn a good deal in advertising revenues. It is striking how much this economy recalls that of the heyday of broadcasting: it not only entails a one-to-many (or few to many) model of contents delivery but also implies an attention economy. As with broadcast television, what is captured and sold is audience attention. There is, in effect, a primitive accumulation of attention, which can be put to work to generate surplus value in other registers. Consuming is rendered productive, but consuming is not an act of labour so much as it is a site for tapping and securing resources, affective, emotive, and cognitive resources. Blogging, however, is a form of flexible labour, often precarious.
When accounts of eating on the air address the other side of things, the audiences’ side, they commonly dwell on a sociological factor: more and more people work long hours, live alone, and thus tend to eat alone. They also commonly speculate about two psychosociological factors. First, there is commensality: eating is social; people want to share meals with somebody or another. Second, people like eating but want to avoid gaining weight. Usually, this desire is attributed to women.
The online English-language reportage on mukbang invariably adopts the stance of ‘new media in Korea’. The reportage remains content with offhand platitudes about the traditional importance of families eating together in Korea. Although such commentary feels innocuous, it adheres structurally to the paradigm Maitra and Chow call into question. Korean traditions are construed in terms of fixed and stable values, and new media embody socially disruptive forces of mobility in general. This example shows that the paradigm of new media in Asia relies on two interrelated gestures. The first gesture is temporal rupture, a break between old and new, which invariably brings with it a second, spatial gesture. In essence, the paradigm of new media in Asia is a variation on the fundamental and familiar paradigm of ‘modernity in Asia’ – modernity is articulated as a break with the old, which is actualized through the formation of spatial enclosures, namely, ethnolinguistically enclosed territories (nations and regions). The temporal rupture (or ruptures) of modernity is thus deemed properly European or ‘Western’. It then purportedly diffuses or travels to other parts of the world, where, oddly enough, enclosures rise to meet it, as if naturally, as if waiting to be disclosed. ‘Eating on the air’, construed as ‘new media in Korea’, feels like a latter-day attempt to breathe new life into the paradigm of modernity.
In any event, the paradigm of social media in Korea mobilized in accounts of mukbang introduces a spatial enclosure that serves to shore up a closed model of communication, to impose the image of a closed economy of circulation and distribution. It is as if mukbang bloggers were producing a supply of product to fill a pre-existing demand among lonely eaters, who turn out to be young women with food issues. Needless to say, such an emphasis on pre-existing demand tends to enclose, to interiorize and pathologize, desire: this is what Korean women want, or this is what Korean society wants of women. In response, it is possible to invert the relation of supply and demand, that is, to show how supply is producing demand (and, in effect, producing certain kinds of bodies and desires). Such a gesture brings us a half step closer to the fundamental problem. Ultimately, however, inversion is not enough. If the paradigm of new media in Korea tends to reinforce cultural essentialisms (through the bodies of Korean women), it is because, at a fundamental level, it insists on methodological individualism in all registers of analysis: nation, media, audiences, and bloggers. As such, the paradigm of new media in Korea rules out in advance Maitra and Chow’s proposal to consider assembling. But it is in that direction that an account of eating on the air needs to go.
It is here that Jihoon Kim’s (2016) discussion of blogging-streaming makes a useful intervention, opening with a challenge to the idea of a rupture between broadcasting and streaming, and, more generally, the imposition of a historical rupture between television and post-television. Kim then turns to intersections between broadcasting and what he calls (following Curtin 2009) the contemporary media matrix in terms of their experience of liveness. I expand upon Kim’s account in two ways. First, Kim’s exploration of intersections in a historical register implies a ‘temporal’ counterpart to the more spatially orientated notion of assembling, which might well be called, following Michel Foucault, ‘genealogy’. Genealogy considers both the continuities and discontinuities between different historical moments of ‘media’ assembling such as broadcasting and streaming or television and the media matrix. Eating on the air, for instance, is both continuous and discontinuous with the assembling associated with broadcast television. Second, if the genealogical relation to broadcast television is taken seriously, it affords a way to consider the nation or region in the making. By approaching the nation from the angle of its individuation, genealogy offers a way to challenge the received tendency in media studies to replicate and normalize the cultural enclosures associated with individual national forms.
Broadcast infrastructures are by and large national projects, and, as such, they tend to repeat the national project, that is, the project of nation-building (or region-building in extraterritorial instances, such as Hong Kong) as it emerges at the intersection of government, commercial, and military interests. The ideal for national broadcast infrastructures is what Benedict Anderson (2006) called flat, even sovereignty. The emitted signal is supposed to radiate to the edges of the bounded national territory, thus erasing distinctions between the centre and the periphery, between urban and rural, by folding everyone into the centralizing forces of national broadcast. The problem is that broadcast signals invariably fall short or go too far and at the same time. Thus the technical problems of vernacular language identified by Anderson (standardization of speech and of scripts) become entangled with technical problems associated with electromagnetic signals (frequency allocation and relays). Recall that, in the era of novels and newspapers, Anderson showed that the fatality of language functioned as a sort of internal material limit on the deterritorializing drive of capitalism, which made national sovereignty orbit around the assembling of forms of speech with print media. The broadcast era, first radio and then television, introduced another set of technical problems for national sovereignty: pockets of people in remote areas, for instance, often prove too difficult and costly to reach with relay stations. One solution is to supplement broadcasting infrastructures with cable or satellite systems. But full access remains incomplete, and coverage never happens in a smooth, even technological manner. A technodifferential emerges. The relation between the centre and the periphery, urban and rural, thus undergoes profound transformations, at once sociolinguistically and technosignaletically, so to speak. Put another way, broadcasting introduces ‘electromagnetic fatality’ into the ideal of smooth and uneven distribution, such that national sovereignty has to operate through the signaletic. The imagined community is transformed into an image economy, which comes to subtend it.
Considered from the vantage of the electromagnetic signal, it is easy to see how broadcasting might articulate and provoke a shift from the ideal of national citizenry, by transforming putative citizens into signaletic modes of existence (which set the attention economy in motion). In this respect, the biopolitical data-basing governance Maitra and Chow evoke with the Aadhaar project follows genealogically from broadcasting. But broadcasting is not an intermediate moment between historical formations, which is overcome; it remains as a mediator, a relay, between national citizenry and bare data life, which now co-operate.
Broadcasting, then, even in its most nationally saturated instances, is not a context, much less an enclosed space. It is, as Raymond Williams so nicely phrased it, a social technology. Indeed, Williams’s account still provides the best portrait of the social technology of television. Williams agrees with the common wisdom that broadcast television turns into a one-to-many system, entailing transmission from a centralized agency to a relatively undifferentiated mass audience. Yet, unlike the caricatures of broadcasting common in many contemporary accounts of post-television, his account shows the complexity of procedures of centralization, addressing techniques of privatization and segmentation and avoiding the discourse of massification. Famously, Williams characterizes broadcast television in terms of ‘mobile privatization’. He argues that greater distances between homes, together with greater distance between homes and other centres (commercial centres, workplaces, centres of political power), contributed to the formation of a modern urban way of life that was consequently characterized by ‘two apparently paradoxical yet deeply connected tendencies’ – mobility and privatization (Williams 1975: 18). As a social technology, then, television is what assembles this paradoxical mixture of centripetal and centrifugal forces, of inward-pulling and outward-pushing forces, of convergence and divergence. What is more, he works through this assembling in three registers: (1) flow is paired with segmentation (programming), (2) mobility with privatization, and (3) Williams calls attention to the emergence of multiple centres, indicating that centralization is also shot through with divergence (Ibid., 21). Not only does television emerge from the interplay of military, commercial, and government interests, but it also gradually spawns a series of stations, channels, and studios, each entailing centralization.
Williams’s notion of mobile privatization recalls Foucault’s account of disciplinary power: ‘Individuals are always going from one closed site to another, each with its own laws: first of all the family, then school (you’re not at home any more), then the barracks (you’re not at school, you know), then the factory, hospital from time to time, maybe prison, the model site of confinement’ (Deleuze 1997: 177). This is exactly what Williams brings to the fore in his account of broadcasting: people are always commuting to one centralized site or another, for working, or shopping, or education, each with its own interests, commercial, legal, political, national schooling, to name a few. But what stabilizes (or makes possible) this incessant movement from one disciplinary enclosure to another? For Foucault (2008), it is the family. The family serves as the relay between the emerging formation of disciplinary power and the waning formation of sovereign power. Moreover, for Foucault, the emergence of a ‘sovereign family’ (the nuclear family emerging through the dismantling of the extended family) is the key to psychiatric power: psychiatric power assembles disciplinary power (the closed sites of production) and sovereign power (displaced onto the shrinking family).4 Similarly, in Williams, it is the privatized household that serves as a relay between centralized sites, but interestingly enough, broadcast television appears in the place of psychiatric care.
Discussions of the mukbang scenario evoke a sort of ‘broadcast therapy’ or ‘media care’ that becomes legible when Williams’s account of television is read alongside Foucault’s account of psychiatric care. Such discussions draw attention to the shrinking of the family (now it is a family of one), but the family retains its sovereign hold, thus serving as a relay between disciplinary sites. Accounts gesture towards the possibility of potentially aberrant or socially extreme behaviour, particularly on the part of young women.5 The platform for broadcasting and streaming media, then, as a social technology, emerges as if to manage the relation between disciplinary formations and the privatized or individualized consumption associated with a household of one.
Looking at new media genealogically calls attention to how the media platform takes on two functions, operating in a dual manner. On the one hand, the platform may operate in a therapeutic or quasi-psychiatric manner, providing a kind of ideal supplement that smooths over the jolting, even painful, everyday transitions between disciplinary sites and household, making life feel liveable after all. On the other hand, platform is a technosignaletic relay, both in its network connections into national, regional, and global media infrastructures and in its relation to the infrastructures of daily life (especially urban design and modes of transportation). The temptation is to introduce a sharp divide between these two aspects of the media platform, for instance, between contents and usage (psychologizing, therapeutic, personalizing) and form, platform, or infrastructure (engineering specifications, connectivity, technical affordances). In fact, discussions of broadcast television have generally tended to gravitate towards one or the other. It is hardly surprising, then, that accounts of new media remain similarly perplexed and divided over the psychosocial technology of platforms, preferring to posit repositories of fixed and stable values (cultural and national contexts) instead of dealing with emerging fields of rationality and transformations in social technologies and subjective technologies.
The example of mukbang encourages me to propose, tentatively, of course, a way of addressing these different registers or dimensions of media without resorting to methodological individualism vis-à-vis countries or cultures, human individuals, and technical individuals – platformativity.6 The notion of platformativity is intended to address the infra-individual intra-actions between platform and human, and individual and collective – a kind of performativity via platforms. Judith Butler’s (1988) now-classic articulation of performativity concerned the human individual reiterating itself, with iterations bringing an affective infra-individual potentiality to the surface, enabling repetition with difference. In platformativity, the platforms and infrastructures play an active role or, more precisely, an intra-active role, as they iterate, over and again. Needless to say, platforms are normally deemed to be perfect iteration machines, reiterating and thus reproducing the same, constraining difference to the appearance of interference or glitch or error, which is commonly ruled out as mere disruption or suspension of service, rather than repetition with difference. Be that as it may, what is allegedly a mere interference (or resonance) may take on an intra-active role within the platformative relation comprising humans, societies, and infrastructures.
Let me return to the example of mukbang. Eating broadcasting activates an affective relation much discussed in relation to television: bringing strangers into the home but also domesticating that strangeness. Accounts of mukbang suggest a similar tack: it is strange that young women invite into their home an unknown young man whose distinguishing feature is an ability to consume massive amounts of food while slurping, chatting, gulping, and gesticulating and, at the same time, utterly ordinary. Early television researchers coined the term ‘parasociality’ to describe such effects: people begin to feel an intimate connection with the people on the small screen, people they do not really know. The term ‘parasociality’ may appear somewhat awkward and potentially misleading, in that ‘para’ may imply that this sociality is not genuine. In fact, parasociality is (and should be deemed to be) genuine sociality. But this does not necessarily make it a good sociality. Commentators with an affirmative take on parasociality tend to stress its flattening effects: television reporters, actors, and characters do not stand over and above the audience, larger than life, speaking down. The people on the television are small and accessible; they are in your home; you can talk back to them.
When Maitra and Chow draw on Paola Voci and Helen Grace to evoke the lightness and ephemeral qualities of new media videos, for instance, they are not only looking at media content from the perspective of its expressiveness (instead of representation) but are also transferring qualities of the platform to its contents – lightweight, small, mobile. As was often noted in accounts of the parasociality of broadcast television, qualities of the platform affect the relation to the images on screen: for instance, smallness, familiarity, accessibility. In other words, the person on the screen may be Lee (at the level of representation), but, ultimately, the expressiveness or affective qualities of the platform matter more than representation. Infra-individual intra-action proves more important than interaction among individuals. By the same token, the platform takes on qualities of the human: it is not merely personalized but becomes person-like. In effect, technical individual (platform), human individual (users, viewers, consumers), and screen life (characters or personages) are situated at the same level in ontological terms, mutually captured and capturing, infra-individually. What initially seems to be an opposition between the domestic and the exotic, between the familiar and the strange, turns out to be an oscillation between the intimate and the disparate, in which the disparate inhabits intimacy.
In sum, parasociality leads to a flat ontology, but, as with any mode of flattening, its value is situational: it may prove equalizing in the sense of challenging hierarchies and democratizing interactions or equalizing in the sense of rendering equivalent, transforming into exchange value. It should be noted that, historically, accounts of parasociality were typically deployed to contest theories of television based on brainwashing and authoritarian mind control – because such theories actually betray a fascination with authoritarian desire that reproduces it through hollow-sounding denunciations. In this respect, in its refusal to take the side of totalitarian thought, the concept of parasociality proves more compatible with Foucault and Williams and their respective emphasis on subjective and social technologies. In any event, any assessment of the situation of parasociality has to begin by grappling with the activation of infra-individual intra-action between audience, platform, and screen person,
Needless to say, media-inflected situations come in many different kinds. The challenge of Maitra and Chow’s account lies in its search for a nonmonetized situation, which they find in From Gulf to Gulf, where it is possible to bracket certain questions about infrastructures. At the other extreme is media convergence or media mix, that is, multimedia franchises calculated to monetize the intra-actions between media and platforms, which depend on deregulated infrastructures and an incessant production of distributive capacity: the infrastructure is the situation. Here I have tried to develop one way of beginning to approach the vast middle ground, in the hope that inquiry into the infrastructural dimension of platformativity will allow us not only to contest and move beyond the paradigm of ‘new media in Asia’ through a reconsideration of national and regional forms in terms of infrastructural situation but may also open an inquiry into forms of power that are emerging as relays between disciplinary, sovereign, and biopolitical formations – what is increasingly called ‘ontopower’ (e.g. Massumi 2015; Povinelli 2015). The signaletic modes of existence generated through and stretched across the national and regional situations increasingly associated with ‘Asia’ draw heavily on the ongoing expansion of social technologies of media, such as broadcast television, while deflecting them into new modes of primitive accumulation and concentration of ownership, which are at the same time countered by claims that affective possession should be law. Sorting out such platformative situations is surely essential to the task of engaging and reckoning with the contemporary ethics and politics of media.
One noteworthy exception is Lionnet and Shih’s (2005) Minor Transnationalism, whose introduction and contributions strive to address noninternational, effectively intranational and transnational movements.
Setsu Shigematsu and Keith L. Camacho offer a profound critical reconsideration of areas in the introduction to their edited volume Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific (2010).
It would be a worthwhile study in itself to track how reports of mukbang became so widely circulated and cited in English-language media. One popular account is Holmberg (2014). One of the more widely cited accounts is Evans (2015). See, for instance, Lee (2016).
See, in particular, the end of Lecture 5 in Michel Foucault’s (2007) Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975.
For instance, Kathy Charles and Michael Palkowski (2015: 96) mention mukbang in relation to feederism. An Tairan (2016) refers to mukbang in an essay on online voyeurism. Kim Hye-jin (2015) links mukbang to food porn in an essay translated from Korean as ‘A Study on Food Porn as a Sub-Culture – Centering on Internet “Meokbang” (eating scene) in Afreeca
In his introduction to a special issue on platforms and power, Joss Hands (2013) also uses the term ‘platformativity’, to refer to political uses of platforms in an era in which internet infrastructures are increasingly invisible, which allows for media platforms to make, openly and visibly, a diverse range of interventions.
There are different takes on the life of television, but Stanley Cavell (1982) provides an especially solid account of the inverse side of broadcasting and segmentation, that is, monitoring and serialization, in ‘The Fact of Television’. Cavell links the act and experience of monitoring to a capture of lived life.
An, Tairan (2016), ‘The Third Voyeurism’. Masks: Quarterly Journal of Dissimulation in Art/Architecture/Design, 0 (Spring), 47-54.
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