New Intimacies

Curator's Note

Sander Plug and Lerner Engelbert’s 2009 video, I Love Alaska, depicts the leaked and “heartbreaking search history of AOL user #711391”—one of 650,000 people whose private queries accidentally ended up on the internet in August 2006. The 50-minute movie, which couples searches with static Alaskan landscapes, captures the intimate relationship between the user (or users) and online browsing. Routine entries – “how to sleep with snoring husband,” “online friendships can be very special” or “I hate Jennifer Love Hewitt’s eyelashes”– suggest not simply database searches, but rather the close conversations we have with our algorithms. What intrigues is that beyond information access, User #711391 seems to talk and spend time with online interfaces: questions turn to statements turn to confessions.

This interface intimacy[1] suggests both new and old forms of technological propinquity—an illustration of the “new specificites” explored in my CJ essay. In addition to indexing larger shifts in our techno-habits and habitus, the example allows me to pose a key problem in the study of media: what do we ask of and how are we intimate with our various modes/objects of study? Here I am interested in a shift in visual/media studies that Irit Rogoff describes as a transition from ambitious theoretical work (in the 1970s and 80s) to a moment when new cultural objects proliferated.[2] A moment when many of our theories felt inadequate to the world they described. New approaches emerged to account for such shifts – including various spatial, material, anthropological, and industry-based “turns.” While such more-than-representational theories, to paraphrase Nigel Thrift[3], are critical to addressing technological, political, and global reframings, they have also produced excesses and shaped institutional structures.

This includes a quiet acquiescence to how research in the humanities is valued/measured by universities, a shifting intimacy with industry research (with its funding, language, and isolated interest in media in itself), and a related complicity in the explosion of adjunct labor – just another texture of this new world. How we make sense of such new intimacies is a significant question. A question, I think, that is best served by revisiting our own search histories – of how we spend time with media and of the questions we ask of it.

[1] I borrow the concept of “interface intimacies” from a call for papers by Nishtant Shah, Namita Malhotra and Audrey Yue for a forthcoming special issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies journal.

[2] Irit Rogoff, “Studying Visual Culture,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 16.

[3] Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theories: Space, Politics, Affect (New York: Routledge, 2008).

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