The Labor of Spectatorship

Curator's Note

The figure of labor unites a remarkable variety of approaches to the topic of screen media audiences and spectatorship. We find it in cultural studies scholarship that, in riposte to mass communication studies’ vision of spectators as a series of passive, recumbent “receivers,” underscores their involvement in the strenuous spectatorial “work” of decoding.[1] We find it in research on fandom and participatory cultures, from John Fiske’s careful itemization of the “types” of fan “productivity” to Henry Jenkins’ perennial insistence that fans are not simply “consumers of … media texts but … active participants” in their construction,  – as if the well-documented pleasures of fandom must be offset by an emphasis on the unrecognized exertion taking place under its banner.[2] We find it in Foucauldian studies of the role of discipline and surveillance in mediated spectacle, as in Mark Andrejevic’s account of Reality TV audiences as “workers” in a spectacular economy that promotes and monetizes brazen self-disclosure.[3] We find it in Marxist analysis of the ruthless marketization of human attention, which projects screen media as “de-territorialized factories in which spectators … perform value productive labour.”[4] And we find it in intersectional feminist work on the unique demands of Black women’s spectatorship, which bell hooks, for example, articulates through a rubric of “resistance, struggle, reading, and looking ‘against the grain.’”[5]

In drawing attention to overlaps between these diverse approaches to the study of media audiences and media spectatorship, I do not wish to suggest that they are mistaken or wrongheaded; on the contrary, they supply important insights that I’ve drawn on repeatedly in my own writing because of their capacity to illuminate both the basic level of activity that underpins even the most seemingly “passive” form of viewing and the surplus value extracted from such activity by platform owners, media companies, governments, and advertisers. I also do not wish to make totalizing claims about the critical study of media audiences or suggest that it doesn’t accommodate alternative approaches to audiences that emphasize their capacity for pleasure, excitement, recognition, or repose. And I certainly do not wish to conflate the aims and messages of the divergent frameworks named above. Some of the above-mentioned scholarship celebrates spectatorial labor as liberatory, resistant, and progressive, as actively subverting the ideological tenor of a text; other scholarship represents it as a lamentable function of external systems of oppression and exploitation. Some scholarship quarantines spectatorial labor to particular practices or populations, while other scholarship universalizes it as a fundamental feature of spectatorship itself. Yet if, whether for good or ill, critical media studies so frequently finds us hard at work, busily toiling away at the coalface of the TV, cinema, laptop, or smartphone screen, it is difficult not to register the force of our own investment in this scene of spectatorial labor – an investment that, on occasion, resonates more intensely than whatever it is we have to say about spectatorial labor itself.[6]

Assuming, then, that accounts of spectatorial labor are doing something as well as describing something, what exactly is it that they’re doing? What do we gain by finding “labor” everywhere we look? On the one hand, I suggest the trope of spectatorial labor serves to burnish the value of spectatorship – and, through association, the value of scholarship about spectatorship – by affording spectatorship the “moral value” our culture accords to work in general.[7] This helps make sense of the extent to which the investment in spectatorial labor becomes particularly marked in the context of bodies of work in which the cultural value of the form of spectatorship being studied – TV fandom or Reality TV viewership, for example – is in contention. On the other, it is difficult not to read accounts of spectatorial labor as an act of projection in which features more characteristic of media spectatorship in an academic setting get ascribed to media spectatorship practiced at the site of leisure. As John Guillory reminds us, for academics, “reading” – including the “reading” of screen media – is work in a far more literal, prosaic sense than the sense underpinning, say, Beller’s identification of the modern cinema-goer with the industrial proletariat. My point here, again, is not that accounts of spectatorial labor have no purchase on what “lay” spectators do or on the systems in which those spectators are caught up. Rather, I wish to suggest that it would behoove those of us who advance these accounts to acknowledge the shared professional investments that underpin them.


[1] Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Media Studies: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham, Caroline Bassett and Paul Marris (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 30.

[2] John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media ed. Lisa Lewis (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 37; Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[3] Mark Andrejevic, Reality TV: The work of being watched (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004).

[4] Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention economy and the society of the spectacle (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2012), p. 1.

[5] bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” Media Studies: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham, Caroline Bassett and Paul Marris (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 467.

[6] This tendency extends to criticism: whenever we celebrate a movie as difficult but rewarding, or tout a cringe comedy as “painful” and “exhausting,” we are promoting a model of spectatorship as labor.

[7] David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2019), p. 19.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.