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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Anna McCarthy


IAS Fellow at St Aidan's College, Durham University (January - March 2017)


Anna McCarthy, Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, is a specialist in visual culture with a focus on television, video, and digital media. Her approach to these phenomena is materialist in several senses of the word. Most notably, her work pays close attention to the physical forms and formats through which images circulate. At the same time, it demonstrates a continuing concern with the market relations that give images value and the structures of governance in which they are put to use. Her work is known for its interdisciplinary methodology, particularly its use of photography, and for its creative engagement with archival materials.

Professor McCarthy received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University and taught video production at the University of North Carolina for three years before moving to NYU in 1995. Her first book, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Duke University Press, 2001) examined the installation of video screens in a range of everyday spaces, uncovering the site-specific processes--control, commerce, community--that mediate our experience of place. The book was named one of Choice magazine's top academic titles, and has been excerpted in several anthologies surveying the field. Articles linked to this project appear in several journals, among them October, Cinema Journal, The Journal of Visual Culture, and The International Journal of Cultural Studies. After completing this project, Professor McCarthy published a related anthology, co-edited with Nick Coldry, entitled MediaSpace: Place, Scale, and Culture in a Media Age (Routledge).

Professor McCarthy's 2010 book The Citizen Machine (The New Press) looked at early efforts by corporate, philanthropic, and activist organizations to devise television programs that might advance particular civic agendae. These technocratic experiments in governing by television established terms for thinking about the audience and the nation that continue to shape strategies of reform in media today. In addition to appearances on BBC Radio and American public radio, Professor McCarthy's public activities in connection with the book included programming an election year video show, exhibited at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space in New York as part of the exhibition We the People co-curated by Alison Gingeras and Jonathan Horowitz.

From 2006 until 2013, Professor McCarthy was co-editor of Social Text and remains a member of its editorial collective. She has held visiting professorships at the University of Amsterdam, the University of Cologne, and the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil, and fellowships at the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, and the Institute for Cultural Communication and Media Philosophy at Bauhaus University, Weimar. She has also held faculty fellowships at NYU's Center for the Humanities and its now dissolved Institute for Advanced Study.

Professor McCarthy is currently working on two research projects. One, still in the early stages of development, examines relations between the Catholic Church and broadcasting authorities in twentieth century Ireland. The second, which will be her focus while in residence at the IAS, concerns recent transformations in the work of writing and other forms of expressive labor following the rise of broadband digital infrastructure. Using a participatory methodology, the book traces how publishing, film, broadcasting, and other cultural industries are converting to a casualized, high yield system of piecework, one in which a mysterious substance called content is at once the basic unit of production and a new form of value.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - On the Animated GIF

A GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) is a string of computer code with particular characteristics, although in everyday usage the term describes looped animations, often sampled from a commercial source, formatted to play on a variety of digital platforms. Considered solely as animations, GIFs are fairly rudimentary. Many exist simply to catch your attention, like spinning disks revolving in the wind outside a shop.

Others are visual one-liners: a loop of Oprah Winfrey shaking her head with a caption saying no, no, no; Benedict Cumberbatch frowning and saying, what? Users insert these reaction GIFs into the social media stream the way players in a game of trumps discard hot cards, each time aiming for just the right spot.

GIFs, as Professor McCarthy explains, are expressions of craft. The word carries many connotations. All are relevant, although we must start with the ways that GIFs emblemize in a digital register the craft of making do, a knowledge base formed from experience, touch, and know-how, a practice of making sometimes called tinkering, known in various trade argots as jury-rigging, pantsing, or kludge.

Makers of GIFs follow a comparably improvisational logic of assembly. GIFcraft, let's call it, a certain feel for one's materials, the latter treated as if they are tactile objects. As examples of GIFcraft, we will look at GIFs that display the form's capacity as a social and political language. Originating in an online culture that values sophisticated impudence, millennial cuteness, and the interchangeability of truth, belief, and commitment, GIF making is a communicative means for collective politics in the age of digital content.

Professor McCarthy finds some small hope for a form of public sphere in the anarchic cultural mixing that GIFcraft embodies. Still, it must be noted that within the larger sphere of cultural production, the same expedient talents that GIF-making hones often find expression in far more insidious forms. One well known example is what is known as "fake news": digital press releases that circulate on Facebook and propagate falsehoods, often with audiovisual evidence attached. (In the days leading up to the recent U.S. Presidential elections, for example, one such item explained to users that every anti-Trump demonstrator receives $1500 from philanthropist George Soros.)

The public sphere of online culture is a millennial realm in which statecraft, the craft of policing, the entrepreneurial craft of self-making, and the craft of deception coexist and, indeed, constantly confront each other in the marketplace for our minds. Identifying the symbol-making logics of GIFcraft is a step towards identifying the tendencies and conflicts that shape, with all its vulnerabilities, the popular craft of political speech today.

Listen to the lecture in full.