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(ILR) Andrew McGrath

Case Study

What is the relation between the emic and the etic when considering the local's import for the global? In a post-cybernetic universe, can we refer ourselves to zero-sum scalar differences, when such differences are imploding? My intention is to deploy my ethnographic data on social media aspiring "micro-celebrities", and perhaps another genre such as paranormal enthusiasts, to think through relational world-building at multiple levels. First is the pragmatic level; tracing out the kinds of love that circulate inside "engagement pods", or the milieus for those like-minded aspirants who cultivate cooperation in the name of hyperreal individuation/reification across social media platforms. Second are the ramifications for love as emergent through the relational imaginary between so-called influencers and their followers. Intelligence circulating socially in proprietary platformed spaces vacillates between the flickering fragments of a waning hegemony of geolocation, bequeathed in the context of the symbolic happenstances of analog communities, and the complex mythologies that people are deploying to negotiate the opacity of predictive analytics. How are moral models for action born of speed and genre, broadly conceived, transforming relational ethics in the operationalized social field? Is there a re-entry point for love in ambivalence?

Conceptual framework

I choose ambivalence as the affective state most detrimental to operational structure today. Building on the concept as originally posited by Jean Baudrillard, ambivalence was once the refusal of the floating signifier and ultimately a fatal envelopment. Have we the time to foster ambivalence in the spaces in which we are terminals? Perhaps cadres of ambivalence will be vehicles for cultivating revolutionary (refr)action. Post-representational code shifted the brackets of ontology (and subsequent epistemology) away from symbolic reasoning and towards operationalized machine learning, besting meaning in a false egalitarian aesthetics of transparency. But violence here is legion. In many ways, we are chained inside a tomb inside Plato's Cave, because we cannot see the illusion any longer and ultimately have accepted the arc of the shift. Still, relations manifest and unfurl in the frameworks provided and my case study should be a reflection of the stakes for all of us being strapped to an Archimedean Point as the universal the locus of our disappearance. Staying with Baudrillard, and various Slovenian psychoanalysts, I want to consider "seduction" as a weapon of absurdity and artifice, an acknowledgement that perhaps the counter-intuitive, but fruitful path towards love and revolutionary transformation is predicated on strategically committing to a shared symbolic imaginary anew. At a pragmatic level, I will engage the work of anthropologists of media/new media Crystal Abidin and danah boyd. The latter is well known for theorizing Networked Publics as a framework for understanding the parameters of human action on social media platforms. In response, Crystal Abidin extrapolated from Networked Publics new forms of social resistance to operationalized hegemony. They called their framework Refracted Publics. Interjecting in-between these two models, I ask what the constraints and affordances active within these frames can reveal about agency and subjugation inside the floating operations of contemporary social life.


Broadly, I see this project as an opportunity to disentangle my thinking on digital ontology and epistemology; a vehicle for understanding the lived experiences of moral transformation happening in peoples' media saturated cosmologies. My ethnographic data has much to say about the way humans cope semantically with the spectral wash of predictive analytics, or machine learning algorithms, but rather than fetishizing the technological, I aim to stick with the human as a fleshy platform for exploring posthuman logics. Born of fieldwork that happened during the height of the pandemic, that context introduced unpredictable antagonisms in which mainstream "influencers" experienced extant epistemic challenges to their carefully manicured subjective identities, revealing the relative weakness of social media platforms as scaffolding spaces for community building. I envision incorporating my own analog large-format photography as a processual counterpoint to visual art as a vector of technological acceleration, and as a counterpoint to the speed of digital imaging.

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