Draft: NCA Presentation 2016

by ibull

this morning i presented the following material for an NCA practice panel. the organization of what i have here will changed somewhat in the next two weeks, and i definitely need more visuals (thanks audience feedback!); but, i’m sharing this preemptively because i wanted to respond to this tweet. the tweet speaks to the larger relevance of the work i’m doing here, because while i’m talking about a television show, my focus here is on lessons that can be applied in other media production contexts. without further context…


Thank you for your attention here today. My name is Iris and I am a PhD student with the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University within the Culture, Computing, and Society group. For the last several years I have concerned myself with questions of feminist praxis and industrial practice, and today I want to relay some initial conclusions I’ve come to following a year-longish analysis of an ambitious serial project that—like many similarly ‘risky’ shows—was prematurely cancelled. These conclusions follow from an analysis of possible shortcomings in existing scholarly projects that work to frame articulations of political practice in industrial media production settings. In particular, I’m interested in recovering value from aspects of producing a television show that are typically regarded as fluff or epistemologically suspect. These are moments that orient production workers in the position of explaining themselves in relation to their work, sometimes under the guise of ‘selling’ the show or themselves. What I take issue with is the derision of these moments; in particular because I think that they uniquely afford production workers an opportunity to ‘take back the mic’—to articulate interpersonal relationships and personal information that tends to complicate possible interpretations of what a project is and who a project is for. Thus, in thinking about what feminist praxis looks like in an industrial practice setting, I argue in this paper that it is by attenuating my analysis of the show to a study of mutually reinforcing discursive practices on both sides of the camera that I am better able to appreciate the many feminisms done in the production of Strange Empire.

NCA 2016 - Feminist Production Culture (1).jpg

Strange Empire is or was a fantastically Canadian western television show, co-produced by CBC, that aired for a single season in late 2014-early 2015. It is now distributed via Netflix and it did see some circulation last year on the Lifetime Network. It stars 3 central women who are struggling on the Canadian Frontier and who, in different ways, are antagonized by 1 man. It was mostly written by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and Jackie May, but writing the show to begin with took a bit of selling to Laurie herself; she initially approached by The Johnson Group—Tim Johnson and Jeff Sagansky—to write a western drama and turned them down on at least one occasion. In the patchy narrative of how the show comes about, by the time she agrees to draft it, several women from within CBC leadership are involved in green lighting the project— Sally Catto, Katrina Onstad, Helen Asimakis, and (possibly) Heather Conway. So to some extent, Strange Empire—before it even has a name—is taken up by women to produce a show for women, about women. And in later literature about Sally Catto’s career as GM of programming for CBC, Strange Empire is conceived of as instrumental to the CBC rebranding/‘re-imagining’ effort underway in late 2013. Strange Empire one of the ‘risks’ CBC needs to take to diversify their audience and bring up viewership numbers. In this context ‘risk’ is a way of codifying sexual, violent, and otherwise ‘gritty’ representations, but it is also a way of affording space for feminist world-views.


Within existing frameworks for studies of production culture, I would necessarily be in a evaluative position of policing articulations of feminist practice. In particular I am drawing on the work of John Caldwell and Anne Balsamo, who in different ways develop useful frameworks for studying both the design of media projects and the practice of industrial production with film and television. Caldwell legitimates my study of how workers self-reflexively theorize their work, while Balsamo contextualizes my study of television production within the domain of technological innovation. For Balsamo, the practice of innovation is made meaningful when it is cultural, and insofar as feminist discourse is a cultural orientation, their study of technocultural innovation is very fruitful for thinking about the how values and practices can become embodied and integrated into social productions with technology. It is in the exercise of ‘technological imagination’

“that people engage with the materiality of the world, creating the conditions for future world meaning. In the active engagement between human beings and technological elements, culture too is reworked through the development of new narratives, new myths, new rituals, new modes of expression, and new knowledges that make innovation meaningful. When people participate in the activities of producing ‘innovation,’ their technological imaginations are engaged in a complex process of meaning-making whereby both technology and culture are created anew. What gets reproduced is a particular and historically specific form of technoculture” (17, 2011).

In a practical sense, Balsamo’s articulation of the technological imagination is useful for thinking about the relationship between available elements and structural realities inherent to television production. And, in my paper I am more generous to their projects, but for today I want to stop short by saying: ultimately, both Caldwell and Balsamo situate the ethnographer in a position of being able to evaluate the validity of how a person thinks of themselves in relation to their work. This means that as a researcher I can deny the character of technological innovation in preference for an imagined ontological transformation that should be able to exist regardless of the material conditions that limit or constrain such an articulation.

What I believe feminist praxis to resemble, however, is more like an incorporated and managed assemblage of marginalized subjectivities. So my orientation to the study of Strange Empire does not assume the existence of a Feminism outside the production community; rather, it works to articulate how these production workers managed and produced multiple platforms, with varying affordances, for feminist articulation. Whether or not their work is capital-F Feminist is not a question I address in this paper, nor do I anticipate it to ever be one of my concern.

2010 Mar10  Leona Lewis

Instead, I argue that we should consider how language and media practices codify reproducible elements that technological imaginations can play with. If I want to align my work within the bounds of either feminist or industry practice, for example, I need to think about how my practice reflects appropriate elements already ‘in play’. For me this helps to explain why Cara Gee, in talking about her character ‘Behind the Scenes’—in interviews and on Twitter—constantly refers to her character, Kat Loving, as a badass. It helps explain how and why Cara Gee relates her feminism within the rhetorical frameworks of Beyoncé’s feminism (because FYI Gee is a huge Beyoncé fan), but not necessarily to other more impossible feminisms that other people may map onto her character. By way of example, I want to introduce you all to my object of study by way of a clip—


On her own, Gee doesn’t relate to her character as ‘the embodiment of aboriginal history’.—probably for a number of obvious and inherent reasons. It doesn’t really make for good marketing discourse, and it’s obviously a really distorted representation if we’re to take the claim seriously. As a way of marketing Kat Loving, her aboriginal identity becomes tokenized…. Honestly, I could write a whole other paper on the epistemological ramifications of that turn of phrase. But by instead thinking about this moment for Laurie in a more generous way, as a researcher I’m able to appreciate how her articulation is meaningful insofar as it makes incrementally more ‘space’ than was once allowed in the telling of stories about non-white Canadians. At the same time, this is done in a way without antagonizing or threatening the constitution of the discursive field they know empowers them in the moment they choose to speak.

In thinking about the natural complexity inherent of discussion of identity in a screen context, I take a turn in the paper to talk about Susan Leigh Star’s work in technoscientific discourses and phenomenology. Star speaks of people who have ‘experience of a self unified only through action, work, and the patchwork of collective biography’; ‘that access to this unified self implies listening rather than talking on behalf of’; ‘that access to the many ways in which people are marginal requires refusing translation’—’resisting uncomfortably but content with that which is wild to us’ [paraphrased]. From Star’s discussion I argue that the analytical tendency to position subjects in space with particular roles and responsibilities has the power of obfuscating the invisible relationships that implicitly inform each speaking act.

So let’s take a look at a clip of some of the fluff I’ve been talking about more generally. This is an excerpt of an interview with Cara Gee that was performed at the same event we were privileged to see a clip of earlier; this time, though, we get a very different understanding of Kat Loving’s Metis identity. [02:05-03:35]

So, under the rubric of evaluating Gees epistemological claims, I might miss the imperative, for Gee, in that moment, to connect Strange Empire to popular discourses of historical dramatizations, feminist media, and Canadian nationalism; for, her survival to some extent (and the perpetuation of Metis representation on Canadian television) depends on the collective refiguring of popular or social networks—a very literal re-figuration of material living around the watching of this television program. This is not just a ‘used car salesman’ moment—this is, in the context of star interviews, a moment in which Gee is working to innovate our collective understanding of Kat Loving.

In the process of translating herself and the show, Gee enacts various rhetorical strategies for both articulating herself, Metis people, and Canadians in a modern context. In a sense, each moment in this assemblage of questions and answers is hyper dense…. It is an intricate weaving of what is said and not said that affords people access to different ways of relating to Kat Loving. There is this moment when we hear Grandma’s take on Kat Loving that we see feminist praxis in motion.

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