Audiences and Audienceship

By | May 13, 2009

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So I’m guest lecturing later today at a class on Researching Media Audiences and it has me thinking about my initial, and admittedly lingering, resistance to considering myself as someone who does research on “audiences.” Part of it, I’m sure, comes from having emerged out of the “hard” humanities, where terms like social science and empirical research don’t have the best of reputations. Part of it a fear that, as Feuer argues, tactics like reception theory can sometimes be more a deferral of meaning-making onto the production of the “text” of the audience’s discourse rather than actual analytical work on specific texts. And of course, part of it is that I’m afraid someone is going to jump out and shout “ethnography, ur doin’ it wrong!” at me (like all graduate students, I live in fear of accusation “lacks rigor”).

Audiences to Audienceship (or, not just another neologism, I swear)
I have, in my work, been using the term “audienceship” rather than “audience.” The distinction for me, broadly, is that whereas I see “audience” as something that seeks to describe the subject position and context of the viewers, “audienceship” is something that looks to describe a context for the process of viewing, or perhaps more accurately, the encounters between the audiences and their texts. This is sort of important to me for a couple of reasons.

First is that in thinking of “audienceship” or the act of engaging with a text within a particular context steers us away from the audience as a category of person and towards audience as a sort of situation that describes particular sets of practices and engagements with texts and cultural materials. There has always been something presumptuous to me about audience categories — “diasporic audiences,” “working class audiences,” “minority and majority audiences,” and even perhaps less politically loaded ones like “surplus audiences” — that tempts us to presume some kind of coherence or neat alignment between identities/conditions of viewing and how meanings are made. Does being part of a diaspora and viewing texts from your country of origin automatically make you part of a diasporic audience? What determines which of the many axes of identity marks what kind of audience you are?

Of course, historical conditions, positions of race, class, gender, migration, and so forth, powerfully inform their view and understanding of the world and delimit the range of audienceships and set the parameters of viewing that you can be a part of, but no single condition or affiliation can wholly dictate or account for the whole of the engagement of any audience member with the text, or with the other members of the audience, especially as media moves across national and cultural borders and, coinciding with an increasingly complicated negotiations with cultural identity that has increasing dramatically with the rise of globalization.

So that in thinking of these modes of engagement as audienceships instead of audiences help me, at least, remember that we can slice an orange many ways and reveal different shapes and patterns of formation. That any member of an audience as whole, coherent subjects, we can think of them as participates negotiating across multiple audienceships, often simultaneously, producing both rich synergies and contensions.

Audience Publics, Audienceship/Citizenship
When I first started thinking in terms of audienceships, I wasn’t explicitly thinking of the linguistic evocation of “citizenship.” Honestly, I just didn’t like how “audiencehood” sounded like Robin Hood. But there is, I think, something compelling about that linkage, as new media forms and platforms make audience and increasingly public act, both in terms of visibility and in terms of the public sphere. I’m still sorting through some of these things, but it strikes me that many of the audienceships that I look at — particularly in the fan-driven online circulation of transnational media content — are not only collective imaginaries, but collaborative ones, communities of sentiment that are radically involved in creating, selecting, curating, and distributing the very text and images that shape them.

So if we can think of social imaginaries that are being constructed through audienceship, and that these social imaginaries, in turn, by being collective and collaborative, constitute, in some way, publics. Perhaps then what we have is an audience-public, not a public made from an audience nor an audience that also happens to be a public or is transformed into a public due to circumstance, but a public that is constituted through the very act of audienceship.

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