Category Archives: Interview

An interview with Matt Tierney

On March 31, 2016, Matt Tierney delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled “Critical Cyberculture in the Large World House.” This follow-up interview was conducted by John Schneider, the DCMI’s graduate assistant from 2014–2016, by email between June 7 and June 14, 2016. The interview covers topics including media studies’ critical lexicon; the logic of the “post-” in “post-45”, “postwar”, and “post-politics”; interdisciplinarity; and the disruptive possibilities of negativist aesthetics.

In What Lies Between, I put together an archive of texts that say no to their present, and that may still say no to ours. Void aesthetics is only one way that technical knowledge can become haunted by the specter of its limits; it’s one way to deny received political narratives and images without making up new narratives and images that may be just as naïve, or optimistic, or technocratic or nostalgic.

John Schneider: In What Lies Between: Void Aesthetics and Postwar Post- Politics you mention media studies’ “terminology problem.” Both the book and your recent special issue of Postmodern Culture (edited with Mathias Nilges) seek to address that problem through the excavation of certain key concepts in the field of media studies, e.g. “medium” and “mediation.” You argue that these concepts are too often obscured by the field’s tendency to relate everything back to the “computational present” (61). In particular, What Lies Between brings out the literary aspects of these concepts. There, you return to the critical recovery of Melville and Whitman at the middle of the twentieth-century in order to shed light on the aesthetic and political valences that a term such as “medium” loses when it refers only to a material or technological substrate. How is the critical lexicon of contemporary media studies limited by its preference for the technical over the aesthetic? And might media studies have something to learn from literary studies in regards to addressing political questions?

Matt Tierney: This distinction between technical and aesthetic means a couple of things for me. From a practical standpoint, it captures a separation between discrete disciplinary approaches. When we look at literature as a distribution of feeling or meaning, we conceive of it aesthetically, more or less, and when we look at it through the ontology or history of print, we’re looking at it technically. It’s a distinction in broad strokes, but it’s not unhelpful. It demonstrates how two inquiries into the ostensibly same object might in fact, if their lexicons or critical priorities vary widely enough, not concern the same object at all (as a film that is seen as an artwork among artworks, say, is not the film that is seen as an instance of indexical technology in a history of indexical technologies). Disciplines produce their objects, and they produce their objects differently.

From a more general standpoint, the words technical and aesthetic are ready-enough labels for two kinds of question that I hear asked about the objects of humanist scholarship. On one hand, I hear questions about what an object is made from and what it is designed for; that is, questions about its being, invention, and use. On the other hand, I hear questions about how an object looks or sounds or feels, how it might work otherwise than by design, how it might not work at all, how it might be dug up later and misrecognized, or how it might be broken; that is, questions that are all about practice and protest, possibility and imagination and afterlife. When I talk about aesthetics in the book, and when I describe the contributions that literary study might lend to media study, I mean that I want to ask these latter questions: the ones about process and possibility. I don’t pretend that the two sets of question are the only sets, or that they can be parsed any more easily than the categories of aesthetics from the categories of technology. But I say whatever, parse them anyway, because there is a difference between them that matters.

So, the genres of writing about technology — pop futurism from McLuhan to Musk, the history of technology, and so on — can concern themselves with how we live, have lived, and probably will live: the definable conditions of humans and machines among the plants and animals and rocks and stars. By this path, we learn to say yes, and affirm that the way things are is the way things are, that the future can be surmised from the past, and that the rules and histories of the material world can be listed and cataloged. Yet these genres will contrast to the stories and images of novel and criticism and movie and poem, and it is by this path, the path of literature (or call it art or theory, it probably doesn’t matter in this case), that I think we can learn to say no. This other path offers a kind of refusal that is antithetical to technical expertise, and yet this refusal is also a kind of knowledge. Any understanding of the present is an active assembling and disassembling of inherited bits and pieces, and by acknowledging this fact, we can learn to refuse the positivist alternative. Any understanding of the future is augury at best, or advertising at worst, and with this in mind we can learn to deny both the techno-utopian and techno-apocalyptic forms of prediction. In What Lies Between, I put together an archive of texts that say no to their present, and that may still say no to ours. Void aesthetics is only one way that technical knowledge can become haunted by the specter of its limits; it’s one way to deny received political narratives and images without making up new narratives and images that may be just as naïve, or optimistic, or technocratic or nostalgic.

John Schneider: Could you provide an example?

Matt Tierney: You mention the stuff on medium in my book and in the issue of Postmodern Culture. This is a good example of what I mean. When people agree on what a word means, as the meanings of the word medium are often agreed upon in media studies, that word can then be shared. Thinkers can join together to hoist the word up as an umbrella concept, accommodating diverse categories of machine and various tools of art and culture, to form a discipline. But the literary history of the term intrudes on this apparent agreement, and risks breaking the consensus, and that’s what interests me. In Whitman, for example, a medium isn’t something that exists before it is used toward political ends. Instead, in Whitman, it’s the worldly form that political thought can take. The medium is the poet, the poem, the polis, the politician, and the pen, all at once: it’s defined by its capacity to cut “gaping wounds in mighty empires.” For the modernist Waldo Frank, another example from my book, a medium is not the device by which to introduce art into a social field. Instead, a medium is the social field itself. It’s the roiling setting for the activities of art, where art can either lend itself or not lend itself to political organization. Whitman’s and Frank’s ideas of medium are very different from each other, but they nevertheless resemble each other more than either of them resembles the word’s most frequent use in media studies, where a medium is an object, or a category of objects, that can be known.

This pluralization, not of media but of the terms of media studies, is in part what I’m working toward. In unfixing a central term, is there a risk of interrupting the flow of ideas among scholars? Sure. But it’s worth an interruption, if we can get thinking about media, as Whitman and Frank do, as political in their inception and mis- and disuse, and not only in their designated or predictable use.

The postwar period, if we absolutely have to keep using that phrase, has to be seen as a continuing reconfiguration of the terms of war, a phase in an ongoing war with differing fronts but many of the same vested interests as are seen in prior phases. Something similar can be said of post-politics, which is just a phase in politics.

John Schneider: I’d like to ask about the relationship between “post- politics” and the “postwar” period. You refer to these two terms as “fictions,” but they nevertheless structure your argument. Although you write that “post-politics” today looks different from its emergence at midcentury, What Lies Between suggests that the cultural history of the last half- century or so has been shaped, in various ways, by claims that “politics is ostensibly gone and dead, already post-” (4). You explore several occasions where politics comes into question during this period: from postwar liberal consensus to McLuhan-esque fantasies of technological connectivity to contemporary dreams of being “postracial, postfeminist, postqueer, [and] nearly postgender” (1). How do you understand the relationship between these distinct forms of “post-politics” and the cultural period of the “postwar”? What has kept Americanists and post-45 scholars from addressing this discourse as a major cultural thread of this period?

Matt Tierney: To my mind, neither of these terms, post-politics or postwar, can be pushed to make good sense, in the way that Gramsci uses that phrase. Both instead are common sense. Both are motivating terms of periodization, insofar as they set off the present from the past so that the present will look like an improvement. Make no mistake, there are many people who can walk the world in safety who could not have done so in the years before 1945, and this is certainly an improvement. But there are many people who still can’t walk the world safely, and it is with this in mind that political and textual thinking should proceed. So we have two options: either we stop using the terms that everybody else is using, because they don’t make good sense, in the hopes that they stop making any sense at all, or just go away; or else we demonstrate that these words make perfectly common sense, by signifying exactly the opposite of what they purport to signify.

If the postwar must name a historical period, then it can’t name a period that is after war, because war has never ceased. That period doesn’t exist. There are still wars between and among nations, wars that involve non-national groups, wars in the streets, invisible wars, and wars by remote control. The postwar period, if we absolutely have to keep using that phrase, has to be seen as a continuing reconfiguration of the terms of war, a phase in an ongoing war with differing fronts but many of the same vested interests as are seen in prior phases. Something similar can be said of post-politics, which is just a phase in politics. We’re not beyond identity politics, for instance. We’ve just reached a point in the history of politics when some feel that they can discard identity as a critical concern. This is the privilege of those whom consensus has always served, i.e., those who can walk the world without fear.

I have an article coming out next year in Cultural Critique, where I speculate at length on your last question about possible disciplinary blind spots. In short, when a field is held together by common interest in an object of study, it can certainly critique that object, but it can’t really displace it. Just as media studies can’t really afford to unfix the definitions of medium, post-45 Americanist literary studies can’t really afford to unfix the terms of its own disciplinary self-identification. If 1945 marked a transformation of the terms of war, and not the end of war, then what does the designation “post-45” mean? If there is not one America but many Americas, and if the nation-form itself is in constant process of deformation as well as reformation (in a way that Deleuze and Guattari might name de- and re-territorialization; or Van Wyck Brooks would label “unfinished and already half in ruin”), then what does “Americanist” mean? These questions have surely been asked, but any answers to them must ensure the possibility that work can continue afterward. In what kind of space, then, can the work proceed but with all its terms unfixed or under erasure? A space like literature or like theory, probably, which is to say a space where one may play what Paul de Man calls an anti-philosophical “wild card”: reading.

Definitive judgement of what a text is or means, once and for all, accomplishes little when compared to its modeling of a negativist sabotage against the legitimating architecture of the status quo. This is the work that the texts in my first book perform: Richard Wright or Kara Walker disrupting without denying the social reality of race, Paul Goodman disrupting without denying the social reality of consensus, and so on.

John Schneider: On a perhaps related note, I’m wondering if you see “post- politics” extending into academic discourse itself. While it’s unlikely to find serious literary scholars embracing, for example, the post-race discourse in exactly the way it unfolds in the news media, there’s a sense within some corners of humanities work that the politics of criticism are in need of rethinking. We might see this in current debates around methodology, e.g. post-critique, quantitative methods, object-oriented ontology, etc. Since What Lies Between doesn’t shy away from the negativist figure of the “void,” I’m wondering to what extent your development of this critical lens addresses an academic or theoretical “post-politics” within the fields of media and literary studies.

Matt Tierney: It’s true that we won’t find MLA or SCMS conferees shouting, as one finds cable news pundits shouting (or did before the events of the past year or two), that misogyny doesn’t exist or that racism doesn’t exist. But I have certainly been at conferences where one can hear a cavalier promotion of so-called “post-feminism” and, under the sign of a liberal analytic of language, an abuse of the n-word. More widespread, however, one finds all kinds of effort at “post-” periodizing. Think of the recent efforts toward a post-national American studies by Wai Chee Dimock, Laurence Buell, and others. Think of Kenneth Warren’s use of the past tense, in the title of his bracing What Was African American Literature?, or of the emphasis on class, to the exclusion of other categories of social difference, in the work of Walter Benn Michaels and others. These are all Left discourses in literary studies that do purport to have put something behind “us” so that “we” might proceed beyond them together. I am in heavy debt to these scholars, and to these particular texts, but I do worry about the periodizing logic of the “post-.” Some of the terms and questions and identities that have outlived their usefulness are also pernicious re-configurations of common sense. I tend to see them more as the latter, and believe that all these dwindling forms — nation, gender, human, race, disciplinarity — are not dwindling at all, but changing shape in a way that calls for vigilant study.

With regard to the other critical methodologies you name, I suspect it’s too soon to know where they fit. Post-critique may surely be aligned with post-politics, that’s entirely possible. But then again, it also may be a rewriting of the the old suspicion toward suspicion, which echoes from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick back to Paul Ricoeur and indeed much further than that. As for object-oriented ontology and quantitative method, they differ from one another, but both bend too much toward affirmation and certainty. Sitting among my objects, which are books and movies in the main, I don’t know what good it would do for me to affirm them. Definitive judgement of what a text is or means, once and for all, accomplishes little when compared to its modeling of a negativist sabotage against the legitimating architecture of the status quo. This is the work that the texts in my first book perform: Richard Wright or Kara Walker disrupting without denying the social reality of race, Paul Goodman disrupting without denying the social reality of consensus, and so on. If I affirm these texts, and maybe I do in a way, then I only affirm their negative values, which is not much of an affirmation after all.

John Schneider: What Lies Between threads the disciplinary needle between history and theory, literature and film, literary and media studies — and in that way performs truly interdisciplinary work, exposing the rifts between fields as well as mapping where they might productively interact. What makes for intellectually valuable interdisciplinary work in the humanities? What possibilities are there for productive interaction between often-separated disciplines?

Matt Tierney: The question of interdisciplinarity is a tricky one. I have two answers, one skeptical and the other impossible. The skeptical answer is that interdisciplinarity is itself a post-political myth. It gives permission to imagine the autonomous movement of thought, as ideas are freed from their disciplinary shackles, but it also opens the door for universities and colleges to reduce cost by cutting departments. Why put up with all the disciplinary misunderstanding and bureaucracy that goes on across departments in a College of the Humanities, when ideas might instead move unfettered through one large and undifferentiated Department of Humanities? I’m sure that would be lovely, right up until austerity hits, or is said to have hit, and that single department is shrunk down or deleted. The walls of departments do impede the sharing and extension of ideas, and many of them should be ignored or tunneled through. But each of those walls can also serve as a shelter for ideas, as well as a bulwark against attack — these are load-bearing walls, worth retaining.

With this in mind, my second answer, that interdisciplinarity is a necessary but nearly impossible enterprise. It is a demand to know all the things from all the fields, and not just the ones that intersect in the argument that one happens to be making. All the debates, all the core texts, all the driving interests must be known, but then, of course they can’t all be known. Even if they could all be read and understood, they won’t square with each other, but will more likely lead to confusion and contradiction. This is where you and I started our conversation, in the seemingly unfathomable distance between technical and aesthetic approaches to culture. Yet even though no scholar can assimilate and reconcile all the debates that are pertinent to an inquiry that crosses disciplines, that scholar should try to do so anyway, if only to grasp the range and import of the questions that can be asked and have already been asked. There’s a bright side to this, though. When you know that you can’t possibly read all the things that you know you should read, you start noticing what else has gone unread, and you give yourself permission to take up material that more disciplinary projects have neglected. My next book is built almost entirely from encounters with this kind of material. There is no good reason for any study of contemporary culture to ignore experimental prose, anti-racist philosophy, queer trash cinema, activist poetry, techno-critique, non-narrative film, or feminist science-fiction novels, and yet (perhaps because each of these already occupies a small subfield) such work is ignored all the time. I’d just prefer not to.

John Schneider: Could you speak about the connections between What Lies Between and your current book project, A World of Incomparables: Interruptions of Communicative Globalism? From the word “interruptions” in the title, as well as from the content of your recent DCMI lecture, I gather that this project continues to narrate a counter-history of contemporary cyberculture, moving from the “post-politics” of the immediate postwar period into the Sixties and Seventies. What do the intellectuals and artists’ of this moment have to teach us about the “arrival of unfamiliar machines”?

Matt Tierney: Each of the two books is built around a way of thinking that Althusser might call an “underground current” that threads its way through diverse forms of cultural expression, both canonical and sub- canonical, as against the prevailing common sense of its moment. Each of these currents, in turn, practices a kind of anarchism of ideas. Whereas What Lies Between is about texts that destabilize the rickety myth of consensus but don’t offer any positive vision in its stead, A World of Incomparables is about texts that destabilize the myth of a fully communicative and technologically shrunk planet. Calling these arguments counter-historical makes sense. You could also call them, in an old-fashioned way, counter-ideological or counter-memorial. When I spoke at DCMI, I described a project in critical cyberculture that precedes the world of cellphones and laptops for which we currently use that same word, cyberculture. I situate that term at the center of a pacifist and anti-racist assault on the myth of resource scarcity, and I show how the terms of this assault extend quite directly into late-Sixties poetry and science-fiction, the Marxist feminism of Shulamith Firestone, and the anti-imperialism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But why even do this recovery work, when there’s no chance of making an alternative definition of cyberculture the dominant definition of the present? I have two reasons. First, these are really tremendous texts. They are written in a transformative language that correctly and radically diagnoses several problems of the late 20th century. They therefore deserve patient attention — at least as much attention as any of the tacitly normative fictions that fill so much of our criticism. Second, if these older ideas can’t fully be read or activated, this in itself is worth confronting. I don’t know how to be a negativist in the way that the thinkers in my first book knew how to be negativists, and I’m not sure that it’s possible now. I don’t know how to interrupt communicative globalism either, and I’m not even sure what a successful interruption would look like in this moment. But if it’s too late now for these disruptions, what makes it so, when it seemed possible before? And in case it’s not ever possible to build a global “brotherhood,” as King would have us do through anti-racist technocritique, what then can be built? And what destroyed?

An interview with María Fernández

On April 9, 2015, María Fernández delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled “Reading Posthumanism in Feminist New Media Arts.” This follow-up interview was conducted by Brian Lennon by email during May–August 2015. The interview covers topics including the intersection of media theory with postcolonial studies and with feminism and gender and sexuality studies; feminist, posthumanist, and new materialist approaches to cultural analysis; and feminism and the linguistic turn.

Globalization and cosmopolitics concern many areas of media arts yet few new media theorists engage with postcolonial theory directly.

Brian Lennon: In your 1999 article “Postcolonial Media Theory,” you remark of postcolonial studies that “for the past two decades [it] has been notoriously absent from electronic media practice, theory, and criticism.” What is your assessment of this situation in 2015? Has media theory and practice absorbed the insights of postcolonial studies yet?

María Fernández: The field has grown significantly since 1999 and it is now quite specialized. It has expanded to include cultural production in various parts of the world, most notably in regions outside the traditional European and American centers. Also new areas of practice such as bio art, mobile and social media as well as theoretical currents, especially those based in neuroscience, have developed. The extent to which postcolonial theory has been assimilated into media studies varies with the specific area. For instance, film and video engaged with postcolonial theory very early but were only later integrated into digital media studies. Globalization and cosmopolitics concern many areas of media arts yet few new media theorists engage with postcolonial theory directly. Postcolonial theory has become central to social science fields including some streams of sociology and environmental studies and it also has infiltrated science studies. As new media theorists progressively engage with the social sciences to address pressing global political and environmental issues postcolonial studies might ultimately be absorbed into new media theories.

Brian Lennon: I also want to ask how you see the intersection of both of these areas (media studies and postcolonial studies) with feminism and gender and sexuality studies today. Would you say that media studies, postcolonial studies, feminism, gender and sexuality studies are more integrated with each other today than they were in 1999, or less so? Or has nothing changed?

María Fernández: Postcolonial studies is fundamental to intersectional analysis, which is now canonical not only in gender, feminist and sexuality studies programs but in most of the humanities and social sciences. In feminist media theory the insights of postcolonial theory are more prevalent in studies on photography and screen media than in other areas, perhaps because photography, film and video were incorporated earlier into academic gender studies programs than say, bio-media, software studies and robotics.

Some contemporary theorists understand feminism to be in tension and even in contradiction with postfeminism and new materialisms because of the association of feminism with social constructivism and with the linguistic and not with the materialist theoretical turn.

Brian Lennon: In your recent lecture here at Penn State, you argued that “in new media art from the early 1990s to the present, it is often difficult to make a sharp distinction between feminist, posthumanist and new materialist orientations.” What accounts for this difficulty? Is it that these three particular formations share enough of a certain common intellectual and/or political disposition so that it’s difficult to distinguish them? Are you suggesting that new media themselves serve as the main context or occasion for that difficulty, or are there other important factors to consider?

María Fernández: The commonalities among these formations are precisely what interest me in the field of feminist art practice. Some contemporary theorists understand feminism to be in tension and even in contradiction with postfeminism and new materialisms because of the association of feminism with social constructivism and with the linguistic and not with the materialist theoretical turn. This conception implies that that feminists favored discursive explanations of the subject, distanced themselves from the natural world and from biology and viewed matter as inert rather than active. Also it associates feminism with unitary notions of subjectivity and identity in contrast to the distributive subjectivities that theorists such as Katherine Hayles identify with posthumanism.

While social constructivism was profoundly influential for feminism, not all feminists equally partook of the linguistic turn. In fact, post-structural theory defined academic feminisms that often became detached from activist and environmentalist positions with which some feminist artists identified. In order to evaluate the similarities and differences among feminism, posthumanism and new materialism it will be necessary to acknowledge the diversity within each current of thought. While most feminist artists did not use the language or the tools of new materialism and posthumanism this does not mean that they were indifferent to all the concerns associated with these orientations. Instead of finding a sharp division between feminists, posthumanists and new materialists I argued that some of the early feminist work in new media gestured towards even when it not directly engage with posthumanisms and new materialisms. I would not propose that digital media determined the artist’s positions, but sometimes, for example in early virtual reality works, it assisted both the artist and the participant viewer performatively to enact them. Some of these works required embodied interventions by the participants in order to operate, which complicated the relationship between the art, the machines and the subjects involved.

Instead of finding a sharp division between feminists, posthumanists and new materialists I argued that some of the early feminist work in new media gestured towards even when it not directly engage with posthumanisms and new materialisms. I would not propose that digital media determined the artist’s positions, but sometimes, for example in early virtual reality works, it assisted both the artist and the participant viewer performatively to enact them.

Brian Lennon: Your work has a very wide disciplinary range, including several research domains that some scholars choose to focus on separately, but also a wide historical range as well. In your recent book Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture, you begin with materials from the seventeenth century and work your way up to the contemporary moment, along the way examining two key concepts in recent comparative cultural studies, cosmopolitanism and visual culture. What are some of the challenges of producing a wide-ranging historical study while simultaneously remaining an active critic and scholar of contemporary art and other cultural forms?

María Fernández: It is very difficult to work in distinct areas without a firm background in each field. My book on cosmopolitanism is a collection of writings that originated at various times and draws on expertise acquired over a quarter of a century. It would not have been possible, for me at least, simply to decide one day to write on the seventeenth century and another one on the 21st. That said, those kinds of restrictions can be contextual. If you look at the profiles of French intellectuals, for example, you might find even wider ranges of writings from sociology to aesthetics, philosophy, media and political theory in various historical periods.

Brian Lennon: Without giving away more than you’re comfortable with, I wonder if you might share a little bit about your approach to the history of cybernetics and perhaps also about your interest in Gordon Pask, on whom you’ve focused your research most recently.

María Fernández: My approach to this body of work so far is historical. Now more than ever I am committed to history because as the study of digital media finally becomes established in the academy, especially in the humanities often there is an unacknowledged supposition that it must all be contemporary. Focusing only on the present we fail to learn from the past and frequently the documentation is lost. I began my research on Pask in the early 2000s when he was largely unknown in either media studies or art history. My first move was to visit all the archives of his work to engage directly with his writings. I have collected hundreds of documents that I am still in the process of reviewing. I believe that it is important to become familiar with one’s material and initially to take it at face value. The work of interpretation must be based on experience with the subject matter and not the other way around.

An interview with Adrienne Shaw

On March 19, 2015, Adrienne Shaw delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled “Gaming at the Edge: Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Video Games.” This follow-up interview was conducted by Brian Lennon by email during May 2015. The interview covers topics including questions of intersectionality and representation, audience research and game studies, qualitative research methodologies, ideology critique, and the influence of Stuart Hall.

Real ethical analysis of qualitative data requires taking what people say seriously and really trying to wrap your head around why they say things the way they do.

Brian Lennon: In reading Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture I couldn’t help constructing a narrative of intellectual history in which the analytic sophistication of theories of intersectionality, for example, had yet to find their way anywhere near the underdeveloped discourses on political, social, and aesthetic representation that prevail in the game industry itself. Of course your point in the book’s first chapter is that academic game studies has done no better when it comes to integrating the perspectives and insights generated by theories of intersectionality and by related concepts that also have roots in postcolonial studies (strategic essentialism, for example). It’s easier to be disappointed here, because scholars should know better and try harder, and because academic game studies wasn’t born yesterday — and so on (I could go on). But I find your book a very hopeful one, in the end, on these issues and others, and in its imagination of “a future free of dickwolves” in the broadest sense. In the best of all possible worlds, where do you think we’re going when it comes to bringing that kind of analytic sophistication to game studies as a field of academic research, in particular?

Adrienne Shaw: I have actually been quite heartened by the fact that since I first began the book, the amount of games research that is dealing with nuance around questions of intersectionality and representation is increasing exponentially. I think that a lot of early work focused on gender, because it had to. Even if the scholars doing that work knew that gender is more complicated than binary, Western-centric portrayals, and a lot of their work hints at this, but they were speaking to audiences that did not necessarily get that. Based on my conversations with people who have been in game studies longer than I have, they were just trying to get other scholars to take seriously the fact that gender was an issue in games in the first place. I think feminist and progressive scholars take for granted that every one “gets it,” but whether you are in humanities, social sciences, or any of the interdisciplines, there are people out there who don’t know a thing about feminism or anti-racist politics beyond the caricatures they see commonly represented. When a field is new, particularly, sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel and say those issues people have been talking about for years are issues here too. I am actually quite lucky in the fact that game studies was convalescing as a field when I began grad school, so by the time my book came out I could point back to that early work and say: “so it is clear, gender is a problem here, but now that we know that let’s start talking about it with a bit more complexity.” I feel like people are really taking up that call, some of whom started doing so before my book came out (I think we’ve all recognized that the groundwork had been laid, now we could take the debate elsewhere). I think text, audience, and industry studies are all becoming more nuanced in how they address questions of identity and access. In a perfect world I think the big thing I would like to see game scholars address next is class. So much of how and if and why people engage with games, game production, and game culture is defined by material resources. That doesn’t mean people who are poor do not engage with games, but that their approach to games is different and largely has been invisible in game studies. Class there most assuredly intersects with gender, race, and sexuality, but needs to be addressed with much more nuance.

Brian Lennon: The phrase “nice when it happens” emerges from a remark by your interviewee Carol and comes to serve as an epigrammatic condensation of your general argument in Gaming at the Edge (which I’ve tried to paraphrase accurately in the following question, below). You reflect at some length in your Conclusion about how the word “nice” and its concept “niceness” function there. In many ways, the statement as a whole marks a player’s habit of taking the problem of representation on a case-by-case basis, which mirrors your methodological approach in the book. But it also expresses a kind of general (if certainly not final or totalizing) theory about the importance of representation: something like “nice when it happens, and when it doesn’t happen, not a one-dimensional problem.” What would you say is the main challenge in writing disciplined academic prose that reports and reflects on such verbal formulations of interviewees?

Adrienne Shaw: Well, I think the first thing is to be very careful about not putting those words into peoples’ mouths. When I noted in my coding of the interviews that these references to “niceness” were happening again and again, I went back to make sure it wasn’t in the question. Lucky me it wasn’t. Word to wise future interviewers out there: never use phrases from early interviews in later interviews, or you might muddle your data. Second, it is important to look at those kinds of phrases in context. How did they express it? Where did those phrases pop up? It is hard to communicate in academic prose, but “nice when it happens” was usually articulated at the same moment everyone made a face like they were grasping at an idea that was just out of reach and hard to put into words. That moment for me captured the heart of the complexity of representation (and I think you articulate that take away quite well in your question). It always was towards the end of the interview, and it was always clear that they were wrestling between what they thought they were supposed to say and how they actually felt but by the end — it’s not that people were more honest but they were getting closer to how they wanted to say what they thought. I think in staying true to interviewees’ perspectives, you have to be attentive to the process of the interview, and how those verbal formulations evolve and unfold over the course of the interview — that’s probably the biggest challenge too though. Circling back to my first point, interviewees aren’t just there to provide nice illustrative quotes for what the researcher wants to say. Quotes should never simply be for texture. Real ethical analysis of qualitative data requires taking what people say seriously and really trying to wrap your head around why they say things the way they do.

In my book I try to push back against the marketing arguments often given for why representation matters (i.e. that women play games and that’s why women should be in games), but I am also pushing back against a focus on effects arguments as well (i.e. games make people sexist therefore women in games should be represented better). I think both arguments are too deterministic and do not honor decades of audience research.

Brian Lennon: The main argument in Gaming at the Edge, as I read it, is in many ways deeply counter-intuitive, and that’s one reason it’s so thought-provoking. You argue that the best reason for game designers to develop more diverse games is not that the players on whom you focus in your research identify exclusively, or even often with their player avatars — because they don’t, often not even at all. Rather, the best reason for game designers to develop more diverse games is that, as you put it, “representation does not matter to players in many games” (219, emphasis in original). There is, in other words, nothing really holding designers back, at least at the level of argument and ideas (rather than, for example, hiring and other employment practices in the game industry itself and the structures of identification they transmit to game development). Gaming at the Edge does a great job of elaborating and supporting this argument, but if we (unwisely) abstract it from the qualitative research that led you to this conclusion, it still runs up against the more and more powerful invitations to strict or canalized identification that seem to accompany every new advance in game graphics and networking in particular (I’m thinking particularly of contemporary military-themed first-person shooters that integrate the characteristic features of adventure and multiplayer RPGs). That makes me wonder if there still a role for ideology critique — that is, critique of design choices, in advance of reception — in the analysis of games as cultural forms. Your remarks on Custer’s Revenge, and other remarks in the book, suggest there is — but I suppose I’m wondering where we ought to separate games that can and should be critiqued up front, based on their invitations to inhabit an abhorrent world view, from games whose players deserve the qualitative research attention you’ve given them in Gaming at the Edge.

Adrienne Shaw: This is a question that I think hearkens back to some critiques of early active audience research. On the one hand, we have decades of research discussing the impact of media on promoting particular ideologies. On the other hand, we have a great deal of research, particularly since the 1980s, showing that audiences are not merely passive recipients of ideology. If we look to Stuart Hall’s work though, and Hall is probably the biggest influence on my research, we see that these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Media texts do help reinforce ideologies, even as audiences are not mindless dupes obeying the commands of their television. An ideological critique shows us something about how society is structured, audience analysis shows us something about how people live within that structure. In my book I try to push back against the marketing arguments often given for why representation matters (i.e. that women play games and that’s why women should be in games), but I am also pushing back against a focus on effects arguments as well (i.e. games make people sexist therefore women in games should be represented better). I think both arguments are too deterministic and do not honor decades of audience research. Instead, I hope that the book makes the case that games simply should be more diverse and that audiences I think are ready for it. It would be a new project, but I suspect that even hetero, cis, white players are skilled at “making do” with media in the same way marginalized groups have been. At the same time though, there will always be a place for ideological critiques of game content. Those are in fact crucial to unpacking what forms of diversity have or have not been included in games. I just think that the ideological critiques can be made in a way that does not presume effects, and that be the reason they matter. If anything the replication of ideology in games is an effect of hierarchical social structures. It shows us what dominant values are, and in turn provides us new entry points towards changing that structure.

I think that it is important, that whatever the pressures to do bigger, faster projects, we scholars always remember to take the time to think through what we are trying to do, how we are going to do it, and take the time to figure out if we’ve really found what we think we’ve found.

Brian Lennon: You describe Gaming at the Edge as a book that focuses on “solitary gaming” (49), though from my own point of view there’s a great deal in your qualitative research approach, and in other aspects of your project, that compensates up front for the possible limitations of such a focus, as you describe them in that passage of the book. It’s clear, for example, that “solitary” doesn’t necessarily mean only chosen solitude, and that study of the “game play that often takes place behind closed doors” is also the study of a social space in relation to other social spaces. Still, at a historical moment when we hear over and over that the unprecedented scale of available research data (of all kinds) requires modes of analysis that both meet data with computation and scale analysis up to a new precedent, your interview-based research preserves a vital tension between the social context of gaming and the computational form of a video game. I think that tension is valuable, but I wanted to ask you about what kinds of pressure, if any, our historical moment (or merely our research funding climate?) now exerts on game studies scholars to abandon that tension and return to the neo-formalism of some of the earliest studies in the field — perhaps now scaled up using software packages for data analysis and visualization, for example.

Adrienne Shaw: Well, even in qualitative research there is fetishization of size and duration. Decades in the field or tens of thousands or respondents are not necessary nor sufficient for good research findings, but they always do sound impressive when you report your findings. As I tell my methods students, it always comes back to what question do you want to answer and how much data do you need to make the claims you do. Sometimes those questions do take decades of field work and tens of thousands of survey respondents, but sometimes they don’t. I hope it is clear in the book, that this was a modestly sized project and if anything should serve as a call to investigate all of these issues more deeply. It was meant to dig into personal experiences in a way that showed the multiplicity of game experiences rather than search for any universals. I approached category saturation pretty quickly, even with a relatively small number of interviewees, which in qualitative research is a good way to let you know that there is a there, there. There are people who have used larger surveys to get at similar findings that I detail in the book and other work (e.g. connections to avatars or gamer identity), and for the field it is actually really valuable that both at the micro scale and the macro scale some of these things are consistent. I think more than the pressure to scale up studies, is the pressure to move through these studies quickly. The thoughtfulness of the design process gets lost when people are just churning out grant proposals to get money to study the utility of new analytic tools. The thoughtfulness of the analysis process gets lost in the rhetoric that data is old if it is not published as soon as the study is over. I think that it is important, that whatever the pressures to do bigger, faster projects, we scholars always remember to take the time to think through what we are trying to do, how we are going to do it, and take the time to figure out if we’ve really found what we think we’ve found.