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Tara McPherson

Associate Professor and Chair, Division of Critical Studies, USC School of Cinema-Television Founder of Vectors journal at the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy

Tara McPherson
Tara McPherson is Chair of Critical Studies in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television, where she teaches courses on television, new media, and contemporary popular culture. Before arriving at USC, Tara taught film and media studies at MIT. Her writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Camera Obscura, The Velvet Light Trap, Discourse, and Screen, and in edited anthologies such as Race and Cyberspace, The New Media Handbook, Virtual Publics and Basketball Jones. Her book entitled Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Duke Univ. Press, 2003) received the 2004 John G. Cawelti Award for the outstanding book published on American Culture and was a finalist for the Katherine Singer Kovacs Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. She is co-editor of the anthology Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Duke Univ. Press, 2003). Currently, she is co-editing two projects on new technology and working on a book manuscript on racial epistemologies in the electronic age. Recently she launched the peer-reviewed, online journal, Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular. Vectors “doesn’t seek to replace text,” but uses “moving- and still-images; voice, music, and sound; computational and interactive structures; [and] social software” to focus “on the myriad ways technology shapes, transforms, reconfigures, and/or impedes social relations, both in the past and in the present.” Co-organizer of the 1999 conference, “Interactive Frictions,” McPherson is among the founding organizers of Race in Digital Space, a multi-year project including conferences and art exhibits in both April 2001 and Fall 2002. The initiative was supported by the Annenberg Center for Communication and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. Her new media research focuses on issues of convergence, race, and representation, and she is also exploring the film and multimedia work of Charles and Ray Eames. She is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Archives, has served as an AFI juror, and is on the boards of several journals.

Links: Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular (see especially the Editors’ statement)

Research Sample: Excerpt from “Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web” in The Visual Culture Reader, 2.0, editor, Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Rather than simply cataloging a typology of digital data focused primarily on its formal elements, I am also interested in exploring the specificity of the experience of using the web, of the web as mediator between human and machine, of the web as a technology of experience. Put differently, I am interested in how the web constitutes itself in the unfolding of experience. This necessarily entails an appreciation of the electronic form of the web: after all, a web browser is an interpreter of digital data, a translator of code, and this relation to digital data profoundly shapes how the user experiences the web and what it promises. A media specific analysis can move beyond a certain formalism to explore what’s before us in the moment that we are in. This exploration will finally return us to the realm of the corporate and the economic, for any understanding of the forms of and the experiences provided by the web must necessarily account for the role new media technologies play in the changing economic landscape characteristic of neo-Fordism and transnationalism. The web’s ability to structure certain experiential modalities for the user also helps to situate that user within particular modes of subjectivity and within the networks of capital. While the political possibilities of these emergent modes of being cannot be specified in advance or in the abstract, their relation to corporate capital must be taken seriously.


In corporate structure, technological form and modes of experience, the web and TV increasingly interact in mutually supportive modes reinforcing what Margaret Morse has called the institutions of mobile privatization (118). If, as she maintains, freeways, malls, and TVs exist in a “kind of sociocultural distribution and feedback system” (119), the web operates within this circuit of exchange, albeit with slightly adjusted modalities. Choice, personalization, and transformation are heightened as experiential lures, accelerated by feelings of mobility and searching, engaging the user’s desire along different registers which nonetheless still underwrite neo-Fordist feedback loops. Eric Alliez and Michel Feher characterize the neo-Fordist economy as a shift away from the massive scale of factory production in the Fordist era toward a regime marked by a more supple capitalism. There is a move toward flexible specialization, niche marketing, service industries, and an increasing valorization of information, which is now awarded a status “identical to the one assigned labor by classic capitalism: both a source of value and a form of merchandise’ (316). The separation of the spaces and times of production from those of reproduction (or leisure) which was central to an earlier mode of capitalism is replaced by a new spatio-temporal configuration in which the differences between work and leisure blur. This leads to a ‘vast network for the productive circulation of information,’ structuring people and machines as interchangeable, equivalent ‘relays in the capitalist social machine.’ Rather than being subjected to capital, the worker is now incorporated into capital, made to feel responsible for the corporation’s success.

While Alliez and Feher first described this mode in 1987, locating its emergence in the late 1960s, their description of neo-Fordism brilliantly predicts the logic of the dot.com era. The fanatic and frenetic work habits of the denizens of Silicon Valley and the Digital Coast modeled the incorporation of the worker within capital, while the proliferation of networked existence via the internet, pagers, and cellular phones helped fuel the dissolution between the spatio-temporal borders of work and leisure. In the new networked economy, ‘regular’ readers help drive the databases of Amazon.com by freely posting their book or movie reviews and avid video game players help fuel corporate capital by posting homegrown game add-ons to corporate sites without compensation, succinctly illustrating their incorporation into capital and its flows. Likewise, we might see our web-enhanced experiences of volitional mobility, scan-and-search, and transformation as training us for a new neo-Fordist existence. Old (narrative) strategies of identification and point of view give way to information management and spatial navigation, underwriting the blur (or convergence) between research and entertainment that so characterizes much of life under the conditions of virtuality.

  tmcpherson, 02.12.05

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