Jonathan Sterne: Machine Learning, ‘AI,’ and the Politics of Media Aesthetics

Sterne poster DAW

On April 24, 2018 (4-6pm in the Stanford Humanities Center Board Room), Jonathan Sterne will be speaking at the Digital Aesthetics Workshop. The title of his talk is: “Machine Learning, ‘AI,’ and the Politics of Media Aesthetics: Why Online Music Mastering (Sort of) Works.”

Jonathan Sterne is Professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies at McGill University. His work is concerned with the cultural dimensions of communication technologies, especially their form and role in large-scale societies. One of his major ongoing projects has involved developing the history and theory of sound in the modern west. Beyond the work on sound and music, he has published over fifty articles and book chapters that cover a wide range of topics in media history, new media, cultural theory and disability studies. He has also written on the politics of academic labor and maintains an interest in the future of the university. His new projects consider instruments and instrumentalities; histories of signal processing; and the intersections of disability, technology and perception.

Felix Brinker, “On Popular Seriality, Operational Aesthetics, and Audience Productivity”


On Friday, June 21, 2013, Felix Brinker will be speaking about “The Politics of Long-Form Storytelling in Contemporary American Serial Television” at the “Poetics of Politics” conference in Leipzig. Felix’s talk builds upon recent work he’s been doing in the context of his dissertation project and related talks (for example, at the recent “It’s Not Television” conference in Frankfurt). Here is a preview of the upcoming talk:

The Politics of Long-Form Storytelling in Contemporary American Serial Television: On Popular Seriality, Operational Aesthetics, and Audience Productivity

Felix Brinker

The turn of American prime-time television dramas towards increasingly serialized storytelling during the last two decades seems to have coincided with an explicit politicization of their content. Especially shows discussed under the label of ‘Quality TV’ have been repeatedly celebrated and/or dismissed for their openly political agenda – be it for their engagement with the anxieties connected to the ‘War on Terror’ and the nebulous practices of intelligence agencies (as on Rubicon, Homeland and 24), or for attempts to tackle the social ills of contemporary urban America (as on The Wire or Breaking Bad). At the same time, other popular programs that at first glance seem to background political concerns in favor of more ‘escapist’ content (e.g. mystery-centric science-fiction or fantasy shows like Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, or Heroes) increasingly engage with matters of power, politics, and political intrigue and develop these motifs in ongoing storylines. While recent cultural and media studies publications on these phenomena have easily connected this renewed interest in political subject matters to the emergence of what Jason Mittell has termed ‘narratively complex television’ – that is, a (by now pervasive) shift in emphasis away from episodically contained storylines towards an ongoing serial narration that allows contemporary programming to construct richly furnished, expansive storyworlds and thus (among other things) opens up new possibilities for representing the complexities and intricacies of political systems and processes – less attention has so far been paid to the political dimensions of the increasingly active audience practices invited by such programming, and to the social aspects of popular seriality itself.

Located firmly within the competitive media environment of the convergence era, complex television series seek to engage their audiences in practices that extend well beyond ‘passive’ reception, and encourage them to become culturally and textually productive by participating in the discussion, interpretation and analysis of their favorite programs in dedicated online forums. Therefore, my paper argues that the political significance of narratively complex serial television manifests itself less on the level of content than on the level of form: By inviting their viewers to parse the complicated unfoldings of  narratives across longer periods of time, as well as across different media formats and paratexts, contemporary prime-time dramas ask their audiences to dedicate a considerable amount of their time to the engagement with a serially expanding text. By doing so, narratively complex serials not only ask their viewers to engage in cognitively challenging and time-consuming reception practices, but also inspire them to engage in the laborious creation of unofficial paratexts (such as wikis, blogs, and fansites) which chart the developments of storylines and characters – paratexts that serve both to render the increasingly complicated narratives accessible and as ‘free’ promotional materials that ensure the cultural visibility of these programs. These shows therefore thrive on the ‘free’ (i.e. unpaid) work of their viewers and employ it to secure their own continued serial proliferation. Drawing on recent conceptualizations of popular seriality that understand the active participation of audiences as an activity that is integral to the economic viability serial storytelling in general, as well as on post-operaist takes on immaterial labor as the predominant form of work in post-industrial societies, my paper argues that the contemporary centrality of such ‘participatory’ practices marks a profound shift in the relationship between work and leisure (or between recreational activity and professional media use) that coincides with the digitalization of our media environment.

To make its argument, my paper will take a closer look at contemporary serial dramas like HomelandThe Wire, and House of Cards, and identify the textual strategies by which these shows encourage a particularly active audience behavior. Drawing on Neil Harris’s concept of the ‘operational aesthetic’, I argue that especially moments of formal/medial and thematic self-reflexivity – that is, moments in which these series thematize, demonstrate, and comment both on the operations of the serial text and on the logics of the diegetic events it narrates – constitute central fulcra for facilitating the audiences’ ongoing and sustained engagement with serial television narratives. By repeatedly producing such moments of non-alienating self-reflexivity – for example in scenes in which a show asks their viewers to ‘recall’ events from earlier episodes and visualizes this by having its characters use diegetic media technologies – complex television dramas manage to call attention to the logics of their own narrative operations and suggest a particular, preferred way of engaging with the text without detracting from the story that is being being told. At the same time, I argue, these moments become productive for the representations of political systems and processes, since they usually also serve to thematize diegetic logics, processes, and chains of cause and effect. Such instances of formal and thematic self-reflexivity thus constitute moments in which the serial logics of narratively complex televisions shows are on display, and from which one could trace out the relationships between their representational politics and the politics of popular serial formats themselves.

Extending Play: Rutgers Media Studies Conference

Thanks to Aaron Trammell, who was scheduled to be on the “Game Studies as Media Studies” roundtable with me at the FLOW 2012 Conference, but who was unable to make it due to Hurricane Sandy, I have just learned of an exciting conference going on April 19-20, 2013 at Rutgers University (Aaron is on the organizing committee). The conference is entitled “Extending Play,” and it’s not too late to submit a proposal (but hurry, the deadline is December 1!). Here’s the CFP:

Can we still define play as an organizing principle in today’s technologically mediated world? 

Play can be hard work and serious business, and it’s time to push beyond the conceptualization of play as merely the pursuit of leisure and consider how the issues of power, affect, labor, identity, and privacy surround the idea and practice of play. The Rutgers Media Studies Conference: Extending Play invites submissions that seek to understand play as a mediating practice, and how play operates at the center of all media.

We are interested in all approaches to the traditions, roles, and contexts of play, and hope to explore how play can be broadly defined and incorporated as a fundamental principle extending into far-flung and unexpected arenas. Johan Huizinga characterizes man as the species that plays: “Law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play” (Homo Ludens, p.5).  How does play operate as a civilizing function — or is it perhaps a technology that produces order?

Play is a means of exploring and joining various disciplines: Social media, mash-ups, and blogs have altered how we communicate and create; game design has influenced how businesses relate to consumers; citizen journalists have shifted the role of the professional in mediating information and forging a public sphere.

To explore these questions, we invite scholars, students, tinkerers, visionaries, and players to the first ever Rutgers Media Studies Conference: Extending Play, to be held April 19th and 20th, 2013 on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, NJ. Confirmed speakers for our keynote conversations include Fred Turner (Stanford University) & Stephen Duncombe (New York University) and Trevor Pinch (Cornell University) & Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky (The European Graduate School).

We invite individuals from media studies and related fields in the humanities and social sciences to participate. Potential topics for paper, panel, roundtable, and workshop may include, but are not limited to:

-Playing with labor: work-like games and game-like work
-Play as resistance (culture jamming, situationist art, or other contexts)
-Gendering (and gendered) play
-Music and performance
-Linguistic play
-Play and social media
-Playing with identity
-Love and play (flirtation, AI relationships, robotica, etc)
-Gamification and games in nontraditional settings
-Transgression, cheating, and “gaming” systems
-Darker side of play (trolling, gambling, or corruption)
-Game studies

The Rutgers Media Studies Conference: Extending Play promises to offer a memorable meeting of scholarship, and to that end, we are looking to play with standard conference conventions. One track throughout the conference will be a series of public workshop sessions in which scholars and practitioners will host roundtable discussions on contemporary issues that bring together an audience of experts and interested parties. In the academic panel track, each presenter will have a maximum of 15 minutes to offer his or her ideas as a presentation or interactive conversation, and will choose one of the following methods of presentation:
–material accompaniment (hand out a zine, scrapbook, postcard series, etc)
–performance (spoken word, song, verse, dance, recording, etc)
–limited visuals (a maximum of 3 slides and 25 total words)
–game (create rules and incorporate audience play)
For additional ideas on how to play with media, play with time, or play with space during your presentation, visit our Style Guide.

The deadline for proposals is Saturday, December 1, 2012. We invite individual proposals, full panel proposals (of four members), and proposals for roundtable and workshop sessions. Please email an abstract of approximately 247 words, along with your name, affiliation, presentation method, and a short biography to If you are interested in proposing a topic for our public workshop track, or are interested in participating in one, please indicate that as well. Notifications of acceptance will be sent out by mid-January 2013.

For more info, see the conference website:

Required Reading: Graeber on Nolan’s Batman

More required reading for anyone interested in popular culture, film, comics, media generally, Occupy, politics generally, the financial crisis, global capital, or life generally: David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, has a thought-provoking piece in The New Inquiry on superhero comics and their recent film incarnations (with special reference to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films). The piece starts provocatively enough:

Let me clarify one thing from the start: Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight Rises really is a piece of anti-Occupy propaganda.

From there, Graeber goes on to explore (perhaps not altogether unproblematically, but importantly) the politics of superhero comics from the mid twentieth century to the age of digital filmmaking and media convergence.

Dark Knight Rises offers an opportunity to ask some potentially enlightening questions about contemporary culture. What are superhero movies really all about? What could explain the sudden explosion of such movies—one so dramatic that it sometimes seems that comic book-based movies are replacing sci-fi as the main form of Hollywood special effects blockbuster, almost as rapidly as the cop movie replaced the Western as the dominant action genre in the ‘70s?

Why, in the process, have familiar superheroes suddenly been given complex interiority: family backgrounds, ambivalence, moral crises and self-doubt? And why does the very fact of their receiving a soul seem to force them to also choose some kind of explicit political orientation?  One could argue that this happened first not with a comic-book character, but with James Bond. Casino Royale gave Bond psychological depth for the first time. By the very next movie he was saving indigenous communities in Bolivia from evil transnational water privatizers.  Spiderman, too, broke left in his latest cinematic incarnation, just as Batman broke right.

This is an important piece, framed by consideration of Nolan’s latest Batman film, but really about the framing function of constituent power and the popular means for channeling, negotiating, and ultimately re-imagining it.

Stellungnahme des Verbands der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands zur 12-Jahresregelung

For German-speaking readers of this blog…

As a post-doc at a German university, I support the above statement from the Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands.

CFP: Comics and Politics

Comics and Politics

7th Annual Conference of the Gesellschaft für Comicforschung (Society for Comics Studies)

at the Institute for Media Culture Studies, University of Freiburg

September 27-29, 2012

We invite abstracts for each of the following three parts of the conference: Talks on the main conference topic, Comics and Politics (1); reports on ongoing research projects for any aspect of comics studies for open workshop sessions (2); as well as posters on any topic concerning comics studies (3).

1. Call for Papers on Comics and Politics

Comics interact with politics and the political in several obvious ways: As a format of artistic expression, as a sometimes popular, alternative or marginalized genre, and not least as an element of new media, comics feature specific political dimensions that are not always sufficiently covered by concepts developed for the description of politics in other art forms. While several studies have dealt with particular instances, the special role of comics as archive, player, playing field, and constituent of political processes has rarely been examined under a common perspective.

The 7th Annual Conference of the Gesellschaft für Comicforschung thus invites contributions from different disciplines and starting points that deal with any of the many constellations of comics and politics. Some of these views might, for instance, connect to recent thoughts on an ‘ethical turn’ in cultural studies, or equally to contemporary questions and theories from pictorial studies.

Contributions might address any of the following three broad subjects, among others:

I. Comics Activism: Criticism and Propaganda

Political elements in comics are most conspicuous where they are dealt with topically and explicitly: In depictions, evaluations, negotiations and interventions of political issues. Such comics come in many different forms, from propaganda with a clear political, religious, or cultural agenda, through satirical, subversive, and socially critical work, up to and including alternative media and grey publications. Along with other fictional or documentary comics on contemporary or historical political issues, they also add to an archive of political topics and discourses. Some prominent examples here might connect to Postcolonial or Gender Studies, which have sometimes been somewhat neglected in existing comics studies.

Contributions to this area might, for instance, deal with contexts of publication, habits of reading, dimensions of social effect, as well as topical content and delivery of political concepts in comics. Some objects for research might include cultural treatments of political processes (such as comics ‘about’ the Third Reich, the Cold War, 9/11, etc.); as well as comics that are actively engaged in political debate (such as comics ‘in favour of’ Christian fundamentalism, alternative energy sources, equal rights movements, etc.); but also and not least comics that are foremost conceived and produced as parts of official or alternative political discourses (such as comics ‘in’ politics: the report of the 9/11-commission, military informational and instructional material, etc.).

II. Comics under Control: Censorship and Comic Codes

From a different angle, comics appear as objects of political processes: Where they have been regarded dominantly as children’s and youth literature, they have variously come under the gaze of different concepts of education and socialization, and have been discussed as paradigmatic ‘new media’ – both in apocalyptic warnings of destructive media or as positive vehicles of integration. In other contexts, comics have been described as subversive and alternative forms of communication: Underground Comix and other formats often deliberately play with a performative self-marginalization, employing ostentative obscenity, phantasmagorical depictions of violence, pornography and other echoes of content excluded in controlled media.

Contributions to this area might, for instance, deal with explicit calls for censorship (such as those connected to Wertham’s Seduction of the Inncocent or the Comics Code Authority) through circumstantial pressure on forms and contents (such as modified imagery in recent Barks- and Hergé-publications) up to texts that offer self-reflective commentary on their own limits (perhaps most prominently in Maus’ differentiated self-commentary on the limits and discomforts of its animal allegories). In all of these, political control of media can also be read as a political view of media: In these discourses, comics are first described as harmful, deviant, dangerous, or as productive, useful, educational, in order to justify calls for their restriction or propagation. Can Wertham’s condemnation of comics also count as one of the first detailed, if controversial, analyses of comic books and panel structures?

III. Comics as a Political Art Form: Aesthetics and Ideology

Beyond the explicit treatment of the political in comics, and the explicit treatment of comics in political discourse, many further questions concern the political dimension of specific aesthetics, imageries, and media dispositives in comics. Connecting to models of cultural criticism (from Benjamin and Adorno through to Didi-Huberman, Rancière, or Badiou, or particular theories of pictorial ideology by the likes of Oudart or Heath, and many more), contributions to this area might deal, for instance, with basic constituents of comics and their mimetic conventions, structural effects, processes of narrativization and fictionalization, body imaginations and genre traditions. The very division of the sensual realm into writing and image can no less avoid political relevance than the many issues surrounding a just and justifiable depiction of realities and intentions.

This opens up questions about the formal semantics of the art form, some of which are again dealt with explicitly in comics. Are comics systematically, or are particular comics especially, politically resistant, by the very means of their artistic practice? Or does their connection to mass production and mass media ground them in politically affirmative mainstream cultures? Which concepts might be employed to describe such a basic political dimension of comic book aesthetics?

2. Call for Papers for the Open Workshop

Beyond the discussion of each year’s special topic, the German Society for Comics Studies aims to further co-operation and dialogue in all areas of comics research. The 7th Annual Conference will therefore re-introduce an open workshop format that allows researchers to present and gather feedback on on-going projects within comics studies in all stages of development, and without any thematic restrictions – not limited to comics and politics. The invitation stands for colleagues in all phases of academic careers to discuss any projects on which they are currently working, be it as BA, MA or PhD candidates, established institutional researchers, or free scholars.

3. Call for Papers for the Poster Section

The third part of the conference will, for the first time, present a poster section. Ongoing as well as concluded research projects on all topics – not limited to comics and politics – can be presented on posters. Posters will be on exhibition for the whole time of the conference, and a special poster session will give the authors an opportunity to explain and discuss their work in detail.

We invite short abstracts (1) for 30-minute talks on any topic concerning comics and politics, or (2) for 20-minute presentations in the Open Workshop, or (3) for contributions to the Poster Section.

Please clearly mark your abstract as (1), (2) or (3), and include a short biography and bibliography. Abstracts are welcome by email, as pdf or rtf files. Deadline: February 1, 2012.

For further information, please see .


Dr. Stephan Packard
Juniorprofessor für Medienkulturwissenschaft
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Werthmannstraße 16 79098 Freiburg
Tel. +49-761-203-97842

#Occupy Comics

Occupy Comics from Halo-8 Entertainment on Vimeo.

Check this out:

This book is intended to be a time capsule of the passions and emotions driving the movement. We are comic book & graphic novel artists and writers who’ve been inspired by the movement and hope to tell the stories of the people who are out there putting themselves at risk for an idea. What is that idea? Most of the media will tell you the idea is a vague and befuddled mess, but movements don’t coalesce around vague, befuddled messes. We hope that through the medium of comics we can share some of the ideas and experiences driving this movement.

Visit for more info about the project, and go to their Kickstarter page if you’d like to support them.

Eternal Shame

Above, video from UC Davis yesterday, in which heavily armed police officers brutally pepper-spray peaceful protestors at close range. Watch the whole video, though, for an incredible show of solidarity. The incident has prompted Assistant Professor Nathan Brown (Department of English, Program in Critical Theory at University of California at Davis) to post this open letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, calling for her resignation.

The pain these officers inflicted will subside, but thanks to Youtube, the shame of their deeds is eternal. The world is watching.

See BoingBoing for more background and another video from an alternative POV.