- The Sustainability of Film and Media Studies
Anxious. Anxiety is the emotion most felt when asked to write about the state of film and media studies. I am anxious because in a moment when everything is viral, words can be so easily taken out of context, and digital platforms are the means by which an entire sector of freelance writers earn a living in this era of gig economies. Wedging the place of film and media studies into public discourse is both necessary and a recipe for bad feelings. Part of my uneasiness exists because I am active on digital platforms such as Twitter, attempting to assert my work and my field into these conversations while trying not to step on too many toes or have my words taken out of context—the worst-case scenarios of both possibilities resulting in unimaginable consequences in my real life. Nevertheless, for all my caution, being on Twitter for me is akin to setting up a digital home on a social media platform and making friends with people in my neighborhood. That is to say, my Twitter encompasses a variety of different neighbors—from other film and media studies academics to industry professionals and critics to television fans. These communities can be wonderful spaces for sharing work, thinking through ideas, and, specific to this essay, illustrating how our research is applicable to film and television news in real time.
One of the rituals I have noticed emerging on the platform is the Twitter thread, aka "rant storm," in which, rather than completing a whole thought in 140 characters, the user builds the tweets into an argumentative essay. I thought I would try this mode of communication because, if done right, the thread would allow me to talk to multiple communities in multiple registers at one time. So, I wrote threads about my specializations in race and media industry, keying in on specific words and concepts that I imagined the readers on my timeline who were not versed in the literature would be interested in learning. As accessible as this writing mode can be for introducing familiar disciplinary concepts to nonacademic audiences, Twitter threads often prove insufficient because of how little space they afford for the kinds of work, research, and thought processes we pursue as film and media studies scholars, and also because our conclusions are so rarely definite—thus making our ideas harder to circulate as part of the public discourse I mentioned earlier. For example, as much of our work concerns identity, power, structures, and the polysemous nature [End Page 143] of texts, the answers we arrive at are rarely absolute but almost always an ambivalent "both." I envision this ambivalent positionality on the body as a shrugging of the shoulders that can easily be coined the "media studies shrug." The shrug exists not because we do not care but because these questions have complex answers that will inevitably have both positive and negative attributes. For us, that complex center space that refuses the poles of either/or is the sweet spot, but ironically, it is what keeps us out of the very conversations in which we should be participating, because what makes for a successful Twitter thread that could be picked up as part of a debate in an online think piece is resolution and a proper denouement that takes only one position.
The media studies shrug thus becomes the antithesis of what defines good online criticism. This makes sense: in an industry of Internet writing where there is never a lack of demand for content, career writers must finesse the art of being nimble workers. They must locate the resources and materials needed to complete their assignments quickly and, simultaneously, need to take pride in the ownership of the ideas they transform into articles so they can circulate the work expeditiously. This ownership includes the very fact that their ideas are singular in nature and original at their core. Because cultural products are made "for everyone," film and television provoke inexhaustible popular writings based in interest but not specialization and curiosity but not context, so that such popular criticism presents its ideas as though without...