I finished the fast yesterday, went online, and discovered numerous colleagues from across the country upset over the latest MLA categorization of our field. Apparently, not being categorized or listed in a specific way upsets us. It connotes a lack of disciplinary and professional recognition of value. In turn, we feel insulted.
Of course, such lacks are apparent everywhere, not just in an umbrella organization’s decision or ideological impulse to emphasize one thing over another. At any moment one or another of our organizations releases some update or shift in policy or outlook, we are bound to be upset. Taxonomies, after all, can comfort, and if altered or not expanded to our tastes, they upset.
My kids are not upset on a weekend morning when they get to watch cartoons. They show no beef with television programming categorized as “kids” (The Mighty Jungle, Sarah and Duck, The Cat in the Hat, etc.). As they did such watching this morning, I spent a few minutes on my iPad reading about how Facebook supposedly makes us unhappy, and I suppose, upset. One grouping of findings suggests that
the more time people spent browsing the site, as opposed to actively creating content and engaging with it, the more envious they felt.
This envy supposedly comes from wanting what others have, resentment, and I suppose, jealousy.
We want to learn about other people and have others learn about us—but through that very learning process we may start to resent both others’ lives and the image of ourselves that we feel we need to continuously maintain.
One might take an MLA classification that places our field in an insignificant status bracket (even when we have more job opportunities than other fields) as an example of one of these feelings. We “resent” the status afforded to literature (though, it seems, many within literary studies are expressing similar thoughts about the categorization process as well) as it is opposed to our own image of ourselves. Or we can say that our own reaction, in a field that still won’t grant us the ethos or category we desire, too, as an example of Facebook envy or being unhappy. People, we might think, are learning the wrong thing about us.
Does a list or platform make us happy or unhappy? Do books do as such? Do movies? A platform may have agency, but can its agency be so universal as to make us feel one thing or another all the time? Not likely. Take this short film on Facebook usage, Noah, profiled by The New Yorker as well. Does Facebook create the jealousy and petty feelings that cause a teenager to wrongly accuse his girlfriend of cheating and thus leads to their breakup, or is this merely a familiar narrative of young love applied to Facebook? In that sense, the platform merely allows for narrative repetition in the way all platforms do (songs, movies, novels, poems). Teenage break-up is not a new narrative (and neither, of course, is disciplinary categorization). The platform doesn’t create the narrative, but once it is used to retell the narrative of immaturity and relationships, it extends the story to include new kinds of moments since the overall network (the story) has been altered to include a new actor or set of actors (Facebook, instant messaging. Chatroulette). Facebook can’t make the characters unhappy; the narrative structure did not that long ago.
There is no doubt that our (whatever that means) overall relationships to social media platforms such as Facebook are complex. On the one hand, these relationships grant us access to otherwise unknown information (news, images, personal items, people’s ideas, links, archival moments, etc). Access to data, it seems, is problematic. If such access makes us unhappy, then, we might think that we prefer to not know rather than to know. After all, the boy in Noah ends up knowing “too much” to the extent that he makes a mistake in judgment (such is the weekly plot structure of Sons of Anarchy as well….). If everyone in our generalized Modern Language Association field knows that rhetoric and composition is not an elevated or unique category among the various specializations (or that it has specific subcategories that are equally important), then we feel unhappy at this accessible data. People, we think, do not fully know our relationship to the overall field. We are more important to the field than the category makes us out to be, we think. Of course, everyone likely feels that way when status is reduced to taxonomy. And because we have granted so much agency to the umbrella organization – as studies often grant to platforms like Facebook – our feelings are intense.
The New Yorker cites a University of Missouri grad student researcher as saying, ““Facebook may be a threat to relationships that are not fully matured.” Academic relationships, as a whole, can suffer from such immaturity, whether online or offline. At Wayne State, I felt slighted that I was not listed in the department’s categorization of faculty who specialize in media studies – despite having written about media and technology. Coming to Kentucky, I felt elevated that my taxonomy of “endowed professor” suddenly enhanced my overall disciplinary status. My emotional response to both categories can be considered as the result of an immature relationship. Neither, though, has to do with Facebook or other social media. They have to do with me. Whatever networks I enter into – networks that include the very nonhuman actors called “pride” or “status” or “rank” or other items – I engage with them in various ways as to produce envy, jealousy, happiness, unhappiness or other responses. A departmental categorization of speciality doesn’t make me unhappy on its own. It does so via the other forces I engage with at that moment. In the moment I currently am in professionally, I’m not sure I’d give a shit about either category. Neither position (How dare they! I don’t care!) is necessarily better than the other. They are simply the result of my engagements at specific moments.
The New Yorker piece concludes by noting that “when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.” I suppose that is true of any given moment. McLuhan’s emphasis on involvement may not have been a statement regarding being happy (i.e., if I am involved, I am happy or satisfied), but it can reflect the ways participation plays the major role in any relationship moment. A MOOC student who feels disengaged – much as a student in a lecture hall – responds in a negative way. An academic who feels disengaged from a list responds in a negative way. A fan of a product who speaks with the product’s makers or representatives via an online platform responds in negative and positive ways. Friends who can share personal and professional moments via an online platform respond in negative (I want that too!) and positive (good for her/him!) ways as well. Like the narrative of teenage love gone awry, this story, too, is not novel.