What My Dissertation Is About

Over the past few weeks I’ve been applying for a flurry of dissertation completion fellowships. One of the great tragedies of the contemporary academy is that so much of our intellectual energy and labor goes not to the actual work of doing our research, but rather composing and recomposing meta-texts that describe our research such that we might secure funding or gainful employment through which to actually do the work itself. This is, of course, tiresome. And I can only imagine for those slogging away at the job market and/or well into their careers in various fashions the whole thing rapidly becomes an exercise in tedium. In this way, I’m lucky that I’m early enough in my career that this exercise still retains some usefulness viz. clarifying my thinking, communicating my research to a broad audience, etc. so on and so forth.

And so in the spirit of “well, I wrote it, and I might as well use it for something rather than filing all that labor away in the pit of my laptop forever,” I thought I’d share a recent abstract that I prepared that describes, in exactly five hundred words, what I think my dissertation is about as of c. mid-February 2020.

(I do not know yet if I got the fellowship. I should know in late March? And if I don’t get it, we can safely assume that this abstract is violently bad, and that it is all my fault for not managing to secure scraps within a forced environment of competitive precarity. Shame on me, etc.)

Update: I did not receive the fellowship. Fun news to get in the middle of a pandemic. I’m still proud of the work I put into it. May we work together to build a world where the most vulnerable among us are not turned against each other to compete for basic dignity!


Abstract

My dissertation, “Atmospheric Media: Computation and the Environmental Imagination,” combines media and environmental studies to explore how we imagine computation in terms of physical and cultural atmospheres. As a key term for media studies, “atmosphere” has material and cultural nuances: our personal data live in “the cloud”; online and offline social “climates” blur; and our devices are implicated in a climate crisis that destabilizes the skies themselves. I argue that these shifting atmospheric metaphors reveal a shared basis in how intertwined media and the environment really are. Contemporary media scholars such as Jussi Parikka and Nicole Starosielski have pushed the field to engage environmental topics, from infrastructure to resource extraction. “Atmospheric Media” builds on this work to explore the cultural challenges facing an “environmental” media studies. For example, the “cloud” of cloud computing becomes far less metaphorical in light of its material impacts on the planet, as well as more subtle questions of how it regulates our ability to analyze environments more generally.

“Atmospheric Media” tracks these questions across a range of objects and texts, from the science fiction stories of Ted Chiang to fieldwork in Virginia’s “Data Center Alley.” I argue that these texts constitute a new discursive category within media studies that I call “atmospheric media.” These are media that analyze atmospheres, as in the big data of computational weather forecasting, but also produce atmospheres through which we make culture. My dissertation’s primary contribution is then to argue that these new kinds of media objects structure our imagination of the environment in unprecedented ways.

My first chapter traces the human breath across media history. With examples ranging from 19th century experiments in early computation to contemporary 3D printers, I explore how digital media rely on and threaten breath. My second chapter turns to air conditioning in data centers, arguing that air conditioning technologies constitute a medium that negotiates between computers and the planet. I pair readings of data centers with Kim Stanley Robinson’s speculative novel Red Mars, which explores the possibility of terraforming Mars for human life. My third chapter continues this planetary interest by turning to “weather interfaces,” technologies for analyzing, representing, and predicting the weather. I trace the role meteorological technologies such as weather maps play in the work of contemporary media artists JR Carpenter and Trevor Paglen, who interrogate how we understand the weather by rendering it as data. Finally, in my fourth chapter, I engage contemporary technologies of sentiment analysis, which algorithmically classify the emotional “atmosphere” of written texts. Sentiment analysis pervades social media, in turn intensifying new kinds of digital surveillance. This is a surveillance of feeling, one constituting a total environment for regulating our interactions online.

Media studies now takes its first steps toward a newly environmental orientation. “Atmospheric Media” argues that this orientation must combine attention to media’s technical qualities with their concomitant cultural work. Like atmospheres, media are expansive, quietly structuring new qualities of life. In its attention to atmosphere, my dissertation reveals how our media have become fully environmental.


There is much I would have done differently with this abstract, if I had the time and space, and if it were not specifically designed to convince a multidisciplinary board of faculty, the vast majority of whom do not identify as humanists, much less media scholars. I am also disappointed in how I occasionally fell prey to the expectation that we always classify our work as “new” and “unprecedented” in order to legitimate the usefulness of our scholarship; I consider my work synthetic in many respects, in that I am integrating a range of extant approaches from across a long intellectual history, so “novelty” doesn’t really interest me the way it interests funders. But such is life.

Oh, and the second chapter should be about “atmospheric programmability,” not just air conditioning, at least according to the writing that I did this morning, which I imagine I will throw out next week, because again, that’s the process.

In any case, I hope this helps anyone who has been faced with the dire question of “what is Jeffrey’s dissertation about?” I also hope that it helps my family members who have made a long-running joke of not knowing what my research is, given that I know they all read my blog religiously. And more importantly, I hope it helps any grad students who are preparing similar abstracts, as I was helped by those who have gone through such processes before me. If I get the fellowship, I’ll update accordingly. If I don’t, just assume that I got it anyway and it was so transformative and lucrative that I ascended to a higher plane, never to trouble myself with The Internet ever again.

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