Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars & the Specter of Labor

the (permanently) unemployed
Rather than watch or blog about the Oscars themselves, I thought I would take a hour's worth of free time to blog briefly about the planned protest at the ceremony by below-the-line VFX and animation laborers, which I've been following the last couple of days. It seems that if the idea of production studies, or industry studies, is going to gain any meaningful traction in the academic world of media studies than it has to confront the issue of "labor" pretty directly and critically. There is increasingly a lot of good work done on the industry side of media studies--how texts are produced, for whom, and in what ways they circulate. Its important to foreground the economic side of what we study, since it is first and foremost a global business enterprise and less an artistic endeavor (though its more often the latter which first draws our critical eye). But the problem too often is that some of this scholarship is driven primarily by the need for: 1) insider access, and 2) some manner of mutually beneficial collaboration--or what the scholar, fan, etc., wants to imagine is mutually-beneficial. There's nothing wrong with either or these goals per se--in theory they seem to promote the kind of intellectual rigor and thoroughness which academia strives for, while also optimistically expanding the potential (mainstream) audience for our research.

But I wonder if, in the drive to accommodate the industry for purposes of research (ideally), an unspoken bargain is struck--namely, not to look too closely or too critically at the object of study. This means, for one, being complicit in a kind of general free labor crowd-sourcing--as both scholars of certain texts, and as passing fans of still other properties that we may may casually write about, and thus work to further promote their visibility. But, for another, I wonder if that also means to some degree overlooking the increasing exploitation of people who do work in the industry in the age of post-industrial, information-age, late capitalism (as in academics more interested in whose going to win tonight than in the protests in the streets--even though the latter is as important an object of study--particularly in industry studies--as the former).

Over the last several decades, technological innovation has more often than not negatively affected labor in the United States. Technology not only decreases the physical demand of individual laborers needed, but also generally drives down the cost and value of those who still find work. I don't need to tell newspaper reporters or auto factory workers this, but it seems a glaring blind spot in media studies--a structuring absence in the constant rush to write about the latest television shows, iPad or digital 3D spectacle. This is partially what I was trying to write about in the "virtual performance" essay, recently--using the notion of the "synthespian" (the virtual actor) as both an allegory for the slow but constant shift to post-human labor, and as a reflection on the persistence of the star system's--and the age-old "how'd they do that" spectacle's--ability to distract us--textually and paratextually--from the kind of radically problematic labor practices which will be (somewhat) exposed today in LA. Its also something that is a constant arch in my Disney (Pixar) classes--the evolution of animation labor practices since the 1930s closely reflects the devastating shift from a massive manual labor force needed in the industrial age to a much smaller, much more specialized workforce in the information age.

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