Theorizing the present: digital media, pre-emergence and infra-structures of feeling

Coleman, Rebecca. 2018. Theorizing the present: digital media, pre-emergence and infra-structures of feeling. Cultural Studies, 32(4), pp. 600-622. ISSN 0950-2386 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Digital media are frequently described as producing a ‘real-time’, ‘live’, ‘always-on’ temporality. While seemingly referring to similar processes and experiences, these descriptions indicate a temporality that is diverse, multiple and changing. This paper proposes that it is necessary to develop theoretical approaches to this temporality, and that it is productive to understand this temporality in terms of the present; a temporality that is both ‘now’ and on-going. It sets out one framework for theorising the present and conceptualising the temporal qualities of digital media, drawing on Raymond Williams’ influential work on structures of feeling and the (pre-)emergent qualities of media culture. It focuses on Williams’ definition of a structure of feeling as attending to the ‘active’, ‘flexible’ ‘temporal present’ (Williams 1977a: 128), and the importance he places on pre-emergence in grasping this present. Discussing various examples including social media platforms, devices, streaming services and apps, I suggest that pre-emergence is an especially prevalent quality of today’s media culture. I develop Williams’ notion of structures of feeling to offer the concept of infra-structures of feeling. This concept helps to account for the amplified significance of pre-emergence, its affective quality and how digital media work across each other in complex architectures of texts, textures, platforms and devices. To flesh out this concept, I analyse the present temporalities that are produced by and productive of the social networking site Twitter, and the streaming service Netflix. I argue that these media produce the present differently; creating a real-time, live, connected present in the case of the former, and a suspended or expanded present in the latter. These distinctions are significant; however, in both pre-emergence is central. The paper therefore concludes by inquiring into whether pre-emergence may define today’s structure of feeling and, if so, what this implies for a politics of the present.

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temporality; present; structures of feeling; affect; Netflix; Twitter

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4 November 2017Accepted
20 December 2017Published Online

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Date Deposited:

14 Nov 2017 17:05

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:41

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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