Art and Literature

Film and TV prof illuminates the ways serialized media in digital era shape gender

Shane Denson

In his 1960 book Critique of Dialectical Reason, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre coined the term seriality to describe social relations in modern society. "Seriality names the default mode of sociality in the modern world, where virtually all interpersonal relations are mediated by commodities and infrastructures of the built environment." Shane Denson, an associate professor of film and media studies, offered up this definition in a recent presentation for the Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows titled "Gender, Seriality, and Mediality." Denson draws on the concept of seriality to outline the interrelations among materiality, technology, and embodiment to illuminate the ways serialized media in the digital era shape gender as a sociopolitical formation emergent from these media. 

To clarify the meaning of seriality, Denson elaborates on Sartre's metaphor of city residents awaiting transportation at a local bus stop. Though we might feel compelled to see them as members of a collective (e.g. bus-riders), in reality, these people operate separately from one another and differ as individuals with varying social characteristics. "The idea is that these people just happened to be at the same place at the same time, they have no common goal that would define them as a group, in a strong sense," says Denson. To flesh out his theoretical framework, Denson also cites the work of political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson as well as feminist socialist and political theorist Iris Marion Young. 

Social practices like the use of pronouns or the gender codes attributed to spaces like bathrooms or objects like cosmetic products also contribute to the materiality of gender.

According to Denson, Benedict Anderson's 1983 book Imagined Communities defines seriality as a collective identity that can be bound and fixed or unbound and inclusive. Anderson's work links different forms of media to these two types of seriality, characterizing these relationships as either negative or positive. Denson uses the serial number system of censuses or social security cards as an example of a medium that perpetuates negative seriality. Alternatively, "media such as newspapers, novels or photography which allow readers and viewers to imagine themselves part of a community of like-minded people" define "the more democratic forms of unbound seriality …open to potential members." 

Denson cites the 1994 essay "Gender as Seriality," by Iris Marion Young to address how social collectivity precedes feminist politics. This perspective of gender pushes back against biological essentialism to argue that the material realities that shape women as a collective include enforced heterosexuality and the gendered division of labor. Social practices like the use of pronouns or the gender codes attributed to spaces like bathrooms or objects like cosmetic products also contribute to the materiality of gender. "It follows from my earlier discussion of Sartrean seriality that Young's reconception of gender in these terms...opens gender to the influence of media," says Denson. "Indeed media exert both material and ideological influence."

Denson asserts that the media plays a role in the typification and standardization of objects that characterize the industrial era. Consumers of media internalize and typify their gender in part "through media as objects and as vehicles for gender discourses and images," says Denson. Denson turns to additional theories of gender to supplement Young's framework to envision "a materiality outside the realm of discourse and language" for two reasons. First, Denson turns to Gayle Salamon's Assuming a Body, published in 2010, to illuminate how conceptions of gender in the empirical sense (e.g. anatomical definitions of genitalia as male or female) do not necessarily map onto how people experience or live out the gender, particularly if they identify as transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming. Second, the roles that individuals occupy and the range of actions they can take in their social environment relate in part to the social meanings attributed to various technologies. These meanings, therefore, precondition a person's capacity for identity and agency. 

According to Denson, digital technology makes the need for a new understanding of the relationship between discursive practices and material embodiment due to the ways technological innovation outpaces collective perception. "Such technologies are literally operating on a materiality that precedes the emergence of the subject of discourse," says Denson. The growing gap between the production of media and the subjective awareness of consumers creates the opportunity for corporations to exploit and control collective identity formation. These corporations rely on the real-time capture and processing of data about the human body that occurs outside the awareness of the consumer of their digital technology products. This process enables the media to more effectively shape both discourse and materiality. Based on this argument, Denson calls for "an understanding of gender as, in a sense, primordially technical and mediated" as well as "a function of pre-discursive typings or genderings of bodies in conjunction with their pre-subjective interfacing with technical materiality."